Returning to ‘Roots' Almost 4 Decades Later

A remake of the classic miniseries arrives amid a new national fight over our nation's identity

"Roots" arrived on Jan. 23, 1977, three days after the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, a white, liberal Southern Democrat elected in the turbulent wakes of Vietnam and Watergate.

The divided country came together around TV sets to watch the story of an enslaved American family. Just under 80 million votes were cast in the relatively close 1976 presidential race, but some 100 million people (about 45 percent of the population at the time) tuned in for the final chapter of the 12-hour miniseries, broadcast over eight nights on ABC.

The latest chapter in the "Roots" saga unfolds Monday with the start of a remake, via the History Channel. The current take on the television landmark comes as a new identity crisis faces the country, still struggling to come to terms with its origins.

The retelling of  “Roots” unfolds across political and media landscapes both familiar and vastly altered from four decades ago, when author Alex Haley's at least partially fictionalized account of his family's epic journey hit bookstores.

The country is in the midst of a hard-fought election season brimming with ideological clashes, confusion and uncertainty perhaps not seen since the post-Nixon years. Yet the first African-American president, who was in high school when "Roots" debuted, is winding down his second term, and it appears a woman is on the verge of heading a major-party presidential ticket for the first time.

People are inhaling more media than ever – but from many more sources. When "Roots" premiered in 1977, three networks drew the vast majority of TV viewers. Now seemingly endless television channels are in a pitched battle with online outlets for attention, making for few mass viewing opportunities beyond the Super Bowl, which pulls in "Roots"-like numbers.

The "Roots" reboot will be simulcast on History, Lifetime and A&E in hopes of reaching a wide audience during four installments spanning eight hours. But while the success of the 1977 edition grew night by night thanks to the water-cooler effect, the new version could sink or swim via social media – the same fickle force that's helped propel everything from the Kardashians to Donald Trump.

The biggest question remains whether trying to match – or exceed – the quality and sterling collective memory of a classic is worth the gamble. The new "Roots" appears to be in good hands with producers Mark Wolper (the son of original producer David L. Wolper) and LeVar Burton (who played the young Kunta Kinte in the first "Roots"). Media reports and previews suggest viewers can expect an even more unvarnished look at the horrors of slavery with a top-notch cast that includes Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker and Aniki Noni Rose.

Still, the “Roots” revival faces a steep challenge in gripping the nation again with a powerful story that still vies to help us to view our present and future through the defining chapter of the country's past.  

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter. 

Copyright FREEL - NBC Local Media
Contact Us