Everything You Need To Know About The Original Roots Miniseries

I have a confession to make: Up until recently, I would not have been able to tell you what Roots is about. Blame it on the fact that the iconic miniseries aired about a decade before I was born — or on my Midwestern public school district, which did not include it as a learning tool in all those years of American history curriculum. (For the record: BIG mistake.)

Roots: The Saga of the American Family premiered on ABC in 1977. Based on the best-selling book by Alex Haley, the six, roughly one-and-a-half hour episodes follow the lives of an African warrior named Kunta Kinte — as he grows up in his village and then is eventually snatched, taken to America, and enslaved — his daughter, Kizzy, and then her son, George, through the end of the Civil War. It's a story of families torn apart, degradation, and dehumanization, as well as a story of resilience, heritage, pride, and great triumph.

Roots is getting a reprisal this week, in a four-night, eight-hour television event that recounts anew the historical portrait of one family's journey through American slavery. Stacked with an impressive cast and determined to veer away from the sentimentality and questionable historical assertions of the original, the revamped miniseries is one of the most highly anticipated TV events of 2016.

So why should you be watching it this week? To fully understand that, let's dive into the reasons that the original was so groundbreaking, and why the series is as relevant now as it has ever been.
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Image: ABC.
To understand why Roots is so important, we have to go back to the beginning. The book of the same title was first published in 1976 by Alex Haley. The novel — considered one of the most important of the 20th century — spent 22 weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller list, ultimately winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Haley's book, and the series that followed, renewed national interest in African-American history and galvanized people to revisit their own family trees.
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Image: ABC.
The original Roots miniseries, which aired in January 1977, wasn't just the television event of the season — or even the year: It became the top-rated miniseries production, ever.

The series' final episode was the most popular of all: Vulture reports that 51.1% of all TV homes across America tuned into the conclusion of the eight-night series. To put that into perspective, that was more than that same year's Super Bowl, which captured 44.4% of at-home audiences.

As Vulture also points out, one of the reasons the miniseries did so well could perhaps be attributed to the fact that ABC network execs didn't expect to see it succeed and tried to "get it out of the way" by airing it on consecutive evenings, instead of spreading it out over the course of a season. By airing it across fewer nights, the network unintentionally created miniseries momentum. Viewership dipped during the fourth and second-to-last episode. But the fact of the matter is that just over 50% of TV households watched the final installment. Around 130 million people tuned into the series, making it the most-watched TV event in history up to that point.
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Image: ABC.
But while the viewership stats are impressive, the cultural impact of Roots was equally important and notable.

"Suddenly both the history of slavery and genealogy were national obsessions," wrote Time magazine's then-TV critic Frank Rich in February 1979. "Theaters and restaurants emptied out during the show; hundreds of colleges started Roots courses; the National Archives in Washington found itself flooded by citizens' requests for information about their ancestors."

Writing about Roots: Next Generation, the miniseries that tackled the last seven chapters in writer Alex Haley's original novel, Rich also noted that Haley's story filled an important niche in present-day American minds: "Roots occupies a special place in the history of our mass culture: it has the singular power to reunite all Americans, Black and white, with their separate and collective pasts."

A strong statement, to be sure — and one that, in light of the current racial rifts in our culture, seems a bit idealist. But inarguably, Roots held the magnifying glass up to many aspects of African-American history and the history of Black enslavement, forcing them off the pages of history books and into the topmost layer of national consciousness.
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Image: A&E Networks.
None of that is to say that Roots was perfect — it absolutely was not. At times cloyingly sentimental, heavy-handed, and sometimes historically dubious, the original has become dated in the intervening years. And while the message of the miniseries remains strong, the visuals leave something to be desired.

In fact, when Mark Wolper, whose father brought the original Roots to TV, showed the series to his teenage son, he was told that Roots was no longer relevant. "I get it, Dad, why this is important," Wolper recalls his 16-year-old saying. "But it's a little like your music: I know how much you like it, but it really doesn't speak to me."

With the story's renewed relevance in mind, Wolper gathered an executive team, including LeVar Burton, who played young Kunta Kinte in the original run. The series revival, which airs this week across History, Lifetime, and A&E, adds a new, more timeless aesthetic to the production of the film. But it also redresses some of the issues from the first run: The new series delves more deeply into the culture and rituals of the Mandinka tribe, as well as into the gut-punching facts of American slavery and racism that were glossed over in the original.
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Image: A&E Networks.
Execs behind the Roots revival knew that it would be tricky to get the miniseries right for a new generation. But they also believed that in light of our current cultural climate, a revisitation is more important than ever.

"I’d be lying if I said I had zero trepidation and nervousness," LeVar Burton, who serves as a producer on the new series, told The New York Times. "But I do believe that we have a lot to contribute to the very important conversation of race in America, and how it continues to hold us back as a society."

The cast is stacked with all-stars, including Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Anika Noni Rose, Anna Paquin, Clifford Joseph "T.I." Harris. Newcomer Malachi Kirby takes on Burton's original role as Kunta Kinte. Questlove oversaw the music for the series.

But in answer to the why now? question, Kirby perhaps summed it up best: "I don’t know where I come from past my grandparents. So the idea that that kind of knowledge of self could empower you so much, really spoke to me.”

Kirby told the NYT that he has started tracing his own family tree. "I’m hoping that will give me some insight into who I am today."
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Roots premiered Monday May 30 at 9 p.m. EST.

Episodes 2-4 will air at the same time May 31 through June 2, across A&E Networks, including Lifetime, History, and A&E.