'Roots' Cast Talks Slavery Reparations and Race Relations in Hollywood and Beyond

History's Roots revival took more than two years at a price tag nearing $50 million. And there was plenty of skepticism along the way. When executive producer Mark Wolper (whose late father David first brought Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to ABC in 1977) first approached Will Packer to join him as his producing partner, Packer's reaction was unequivocally negative. "I said, 'Are you crazy?'" recalls Packer, who has produced a string of African-American-targeted big-screen hits (Straight Outta Compton, the Ride Along franchise).

"This is one of the most iconic pieces of content in history, and I thought that this was a tremendously risky undertaking," he adds. "But as filmmakers, we wouldn't be where we are without taking risks. In the end, it was the opportunity to put really important material in front of an audience that hasn't seen it."

Indeed, 140 million viewers are estimated to have seen the original 12-hour miniseries. And while those involved have tempered their expectations for the remake in a continually fractured content arena, they are hopeful that its impact goes beyond mere television ratings. Stars Malachi Kirby, Anika Noni Rose, Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin and executive producer LeVar Burton (who starred as Kunte Kinte in the original 1977 miniseries) talked to The Hollywood Reporter about shooting on a real plantation, the debate about reparations and Hollywood’s record on diversity.

Why is now the right time for a Roots remake?

Burton: America really needs Roots now almost more than ever. I believe that we set a foundation 40 years ago and that there was an awful lot of enlightenment that went on with that first telling of the story. And I am very hopeful that we can once again initiate a much-needed conversation. I want to create a safe space for Americans to really be honest about what we're afraid of and what we're so angry about. I really want us to be able to have that honest conversation in a safe context, and I believe that Roots can help us do it.

Rose: There is a conversation going on that started [in 2014] with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ [The Atlantic article "The Case for Reparations"] and has now been [examined] in The New York Times in terms of Georgetown [University] and reparations. Georgetown was built upon [slavery], let's get that really clear. They were going to shut down and [the university’s Jesuit founders] were like, 'Well, let's sell a few people so we can keep these doors open.' Well, they have records of who these people are. And when you have a record of who has been wronged, it should be a very simple conversation. And yet it's very loaded because I don't think that we have been taught as Americans what our history truly is. So as far as relevance, it couldn't be more relevant.

There are more opportunities for people of color in Hollywood, but clearly the industry still has work to do in that area.

Burton: There is certainly more awareness; however, the gatekeepers are predominantly the same. We tend to create art through our own lens, and the lens has just been very narrow in this town for the last 70, 80 years. We’re experiencing the democratization of content creation and still at the studio and the network level [there is a lack of] diversity. And so has there been some movement? Yes. Are we done? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Paquin: I think this was cooking for long, long before any of that became very Twitter hashtagged, which I guess is just how these conversations happen now but I think was deeper and more important than the social affectation of this sort of topic.

Anika, do you have thoughts on that as a woman of color in Hollywood?

Rose: We don't even have to talk about women of color. It's very important for us to control the narrative. I cannot stress enough the need to be behind the lens. I can't stress it enough. Whether that's as a director, a cinematographer, a producer, we need to be behind the lens. We need [industry leaders] to reach out and say, 'Hey, I see you. I find you very interesting. I see you have something in you, a spark. Why don't you come with me? I can show you something.' And if that person doesn't reach out their hand, then we have to start to take it. 

Race relations almost seem worse today than when the U.S. elected President Barack Obama almost eight years ago.

Burton: I was very happy to see a black man elected to the highest office in the land, I never thought I would see it in my lifetime. But by no stretch of the imagination did I ever interpret that to mean that we were in a post-racial society.

Rose: And you could just look at the way that President Obama is referred to; I have never seen presidents referred to by their first names or nicknames in the press. So to say 'post-racial,' to tack that onto that, is sort of humorous. I think all we have to do was look at the comments section on [the internet] to know how post-racial we are.

Whitaker: In regards to the [racial] dialogue [in] the industry itself, I think it is important to bring up these ideas, to look at ourselves and decide whether or not things are being treated fairly, whether films are being done with the same amount of impact, same amount of investment.

Rose: I think what's happening in Hollywood is a direct reflection of what's happening in the world right now.

What was it like filming this material on what was once a real plantation in Louisiana?

Kirby: There is still an energy there that you can't really escape. You see the trees and you realize those are probably the same trees that saw all those atrocities. The last scene that we did in this whole shoot was Kunta Kinte breaking the chains and running free. That was my last scene shooting this film. And by that point, I felt like I was in some kind of bondage. And so when we did that last scene with Kunta breaking those chains and ran free, I was running free with him.

Rose: Very often the people who are shooting your film do not look like you if your film is brown-centric in some way. What is very interesting is to be going through these scenarios and turning around and looking at so many faces that are not yours. Even though those faces are looking at you in love, it puts you in a space when you are on a plantation in that condition. I think that it allows you to see further into possibly what that place really was for someone else, except thank God we're with people who love and respect us.

There is a lot of racist language. How did that affect you hearing that and having it directed at you as performers?

Rose: I have to say that it affects me much more during this election cycle than it did creating that role, being in that time period. It's much more shocking [now].

Kirby: I was doing a scene, I won’t say which one, where brutality was inflicted on me and [the other actor] was calling me a n—er, as that was the language at the time. And so we're doing this scene and at the end of it he is in tears, the actor, and he apologizes to me and he says he's so sorry for doing that. That he feels as an actor the need to apologize just speaks volumes of the times that we're living in right now. And that was beautiful.

What is the ultimate message all of you want to impart — to viewers and to the Hollywood community — with this project?

Rose: That there is value in truth, there is value in honesty. We have the opportunity to, as we increase the conversation, to remove the stigma of guilt and the stigma of shame behind this. This story is not just a story of bondage and oppression but also a story of heroes and perseverance and strength. We have the opportunity to open ourselves to each other so that when we find out that a relative was enslaved, we can take that as a badge of pride because we are here and we made it. When we find out that a relative was a slave owner we can say, "But look where we are now — we would never do that because we value life and we value humanity and we value love above everything else."

Whitaker: We're trying to move towards healing, and the healing starts with an acknowledgement.

Burton: There is amazing strength and victory in the Roots story. So in success, this version of Roots gives us an opportunity to look at ourselves, to examine where we want to take ourselves as a nation, as a people, as a planet. And that is the primary responsibility of art in a civilized society — to move the culture forward. So in success that's what I am hoping for, that we are able to move this culture forward.

Roots bows Memorial Day across A+E Networks' flagship channels History, A&E and Lifetime.