In 1976, the original Roots miniseries
was a defining cultural event. It was not the first of the miniseries – or
“novels for television,” as they dubbed the form at the time. A 1974
version of Leon Uris’ QB VII was the first miniseries to be filmed by
the American networks. Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man was
the first miniseries to really capture the imagination of the public,
becoming very popular and critically acclaimed.
However, Roots, based on the
autobiographical story of author Alex Hailey’s research of his own family
tree from Africa through decades of slavery, became an instant sensation.
This was rather shocking, because Hailey was not a hugely well-known author
– he was previously best known for having co-written The Autobiography of
Malcolm X. Also Roots was a pretty current book, it was becoming
a bestseller, but had not quite exploded yet.
However, the 12-hour long series ran on eight
straight nights, preempting all of ABC television’s programming for over a
week, and became a true blockbuster. The final episode on January 30, 1976
gained 71% of all television viewers in the US on that night, and became the
most-watched scripted TV show ever at the time. This record was eventually
eclipsed by the 1980 “Who Shot JR?” episode of Dallas and later by
the finale of M*A*S*H, which still holds the record to this day.
Since channel options are so much wider and fragmented in current TV, that
record will not likely be broken. Eventually over 130 million people
watched Roots in its short run.
Therefore, it is no real surprise that
eventually there would be a remake of that iconic series. The History
Channel’s version of Roots is a very worthy remake of the original
series. I’m not going to lie – I haven’t seen the original since its 1976
broadcast, so with 40 years of hazy memory, I’m not 100% sure how faithful
the new Roots is to the original series or the book. I do know it
has been trimmed from about 12 hours to about eight, so I would guess there
was a lot that is not done in the new version.
Strangely, 40 years on and on cable, the new
Roots does pull a few punches that the original miniseries would
not. For example, the original series courageously fought standards and
practices to become one of the first shows on network TV to show female
breasts in the opening African tribe scenes, explaining reasonably that
women in these tribes simply didn’t wear tops. It wasn’t sexual. It wasn’t
dwelled upon. It wasn’t exploitative. It was simply historically
accurate. Decades later, in a TV world that has become much more
comfortable with a little bit of nudity – and on a cable network, to boot –
suddenly the tribeswomen are wearing sports bras.
However, despite this slight timid streak, the
new version of Roots is still telling a spectacular story, one done
with fine acting, good period filming and a wonderful mix of tragedy and
human resilience. The original series was well known for its impressive
acting, and like that, this new version has a savvy mix of recognizable
stars and lesser-known talents.
Probably the biggest hurdle was finding the
right actor to play the man around whom the entire series eventually
revolves. Kunta Kinte was a Gambian prince who was kidnapped by
slave-traders and sent to the new world as a slave. The original Kunta
Kinte made a star of LeVar Burton, who has a cameo here as a caged and
chained slave. The role has been given to British actor Malachi Kirby, who
does a terrific job of taking over such an iconic character.
Like the original series, the new series
follows Hailey’s family over the years, going from generation to
generation. When Kunta and his eventual wife Belle disappear, you move on
to their daughter Kizzy, then to her son Chicken George, and finally to his
It is a smart and touching look at a family’s
history. Truth is, the original series was probably a bit better, but this
series is still time well spent.
Jay S. Jacobs
All rights reserved. Posted: September 2,