“Forgive me if this day becomes slightly emotional for me,” says LeVar Burton. “Being here in this house, at this particular time in history. This is a moment.”
This house being the White House. This moment being a daylong event — hosted by Valerie Jarrett, the president’s closest adviser — devoted to A+E Networks’ Roots, a reimagining of the blockbuster 1977 miniseries about several generations of a slave family. The four-part, eight-hour project will debut on Memorial Day (May 30), airing simultaneously on History, Lifetime and A&E. The White House screening and panel discussion is a key step toward making Roots not just a successful television show but also an old-fashioned, watercooler-style collective cultural event.
Burton was a 19-year-old student at USC when he starred in the original as Kunta Kinte, the Mandinka warrior who is kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery in America. Burton now is an executive producer of the new version, passing on the career-defining lead role to 26-year-old Malachi Kirby, a second-generation Londoner whose grandparents came from Jamaica.
Kirby is here at the White House, as well. It’s the young actor’s first trip to Washington, D.C. — he only had been to New York once before, in April, for a Roots screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. But on this gray Tuesday in mid-May, as a mournful rain falls on the waning days of the historic presidency of Barack Obama, Kirby is in the South Court Auditorium, along with co-star Anika Noni Rose (who plays his daughter, Kizzy), directors Mario Van Peebles and Phillip Noyce and producers Mark Wolper, Burton and Will Packer (the force behind a string of big-screen hits including Straight Outta Compton and the Ride Along franchise), all of them waiting — and hoping — for TV history to repeat itself.
“It’s surreal,” marvels Kirby, looking trim in a navy suit and gray tie (he went on a three-week Paleo diet to gain the sinewy frame of an African warrior). “Just the idea that we are showing this subject matter in the White House; it’s still strange to me but very powerful. It’s a very powerful idea.”
Nancy Dubuc, president and CEO of A+E Networks, couldn’t agree more. She sees Roots, with a budget close to $50 million, as a chance to redefine her core brands as destinations for serious scripted television and leaders of the national conversation. Winning awards is a major piece of that agenda, starting with the Emmys, which traditionally have been more inclusive than the Academy Awards, in part because television generally has a better track record on diversity than film does. But Roots will face stiff competition in the miniseries category — one of its main rivals is sure to be FX’s campy and addictive The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which also has been applauded for its deft handling of racial politics. (The real O.J. Simpson, incidentally, had a cameo as a West African tribesman in the original Roots.) But Dubuc believes her series is a far worthier undertaking. “It should go head-to-head with O.J. And I hope this is the story that people want to recognize as the definitive message [on race],” she says. “We want it — we want not only the nominations, we want to take the whole kit and caboodle home.”
Malachi Kirby was photographed April 25 at Jack Studios in New York.
In early 1977, as ABC was preparing to broadcast Roots, based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from the previous year, network chief Fred Silverman was so sure it would flop that he jammed it onto the schedule over eight consecutive nights at the end of January. That way, it would be safely off the air before the critical February sweeps period began.
Silverman, obviously, was wrong. More than half of the U.S. population watched at least some part of the miniseries. The final episode, seen by more than 100 million, still ranks among television’s most watched telecasts, and Roots went on to win nine Emmy Awards. It pioneered the docu-melodrama form, fueled the miniseries craze (The Thorn Birds, Shogun and The Winds of War all followed) and awakened television executives to the potential of African-American subject matter — not to mention the existence of African-American television viewers.
“The race conversation was cooking in Hollywood long before any of it became Twitter hashtagged,” says Anna Paquin.
Its effect on the culture was even more profound; Roots enlightened a nation to the brutal history of slavery, which tended to be woefully underplayed in textbooks (to say nothing of Hollywood movies and TV shows). Hundreds of colleges planned courses on Roots, and more than two dozen U.S. cities held “Roots weeks,” according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. It was the type of massive impact that is almost unimaginable in today’s atomized media environment.
But does that mean it can be done again? Or that it should even be tried?
Burton recalls hearing about plans for a remake in October 2013 at a DGA screening of 12 Years a Slave. “Russell Simmons came up to me and said, ‘You know they’re remaking Roots.’ And I thought, ‘Really? Why?’ “
A couple days later, Mark Wolper, whose late father, David, brought the original Roots to television, called to enlist Burton as an executive producer on a new version.
“He told me that he had tried to show Roots, the original, to his son, who was 16 at the time,” says Burton. “And his son said to him, ‘I get it, Dad, why this is important. But it’s a little like your music: I know how much you like it, but it really doesn’t speak to me.’ “
“There is certainly more awareness [of race in Hollywood], however the gatekeepers are predominately the same,” says Burton. “We tend to create life through our own lens, and that lens has been very narrow in this town for the last 80 years.”
This was fall 2013, in the nascent months of the Black Lives Matter movement. At that moment, Wolper and Burton simply were motivated by an opportunity to bridge a generational chasm. “There is a whole generation of Americans who don’t know the story, don’t have a connection to Roots,” adds Burton. “It was still very daunting to even contemplate. But I felt that there was merit in trying. And if I could help make it as good as it could be, it would be much better than just sitting on the sidelines.”
Around the same time, Dubuc was on the hunt for her next big scripted project. Her Kevin Costner-headlined Hatfields & McCoys had set a viewership record for History when it premiered on Memorial Day 2012. More than 13 million viewers watched each of its three nights, helping History shake off its reputation as a repository for musty historical documentaries and reality shows. And since she had launched A+E Studios in June 2013, Dubuc also was looking for a project she could own outright, to maximize all the revenue from emerging platforms and global distribution.
Says Whitaker, “It’s important to bring up these ideas, to look at ourselves, to put ourselves up in front of a mirror and decide whether or not things are being treated fairly.”
“We were shockingly close to owning Hatfields, and in the eleventh hour, we brought in Sony to hedge some of our risk,” she admits. “And I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.”
And so Dubuc’s business affairs department entered into negotiations with Wolper, who held the Roots miniseries rights, and Marc Toberoff, the well-known intellectual property lawyer (he has won or settled myriad IP cases, especially in the comic book realm) who was representing the Haley estate. (Haley died in 1992; his descendants will receive royalties from the new project.) Like Burton, Dubuc had her doubts; how could a remake ever come close to achieving the iconic status of the original? Would millennial African-American audiences embrace the material? (Today, African-American viewers number nearly 40 million of the 296.8 million television viewers, according to Nielsen.) Could A+E, which spends a relatively efficient $1 billion a year on original content, afford such a big gamble, which included an onerous $1 million kill fee?
“It was oppressive heat, the likes of which I don’t think I really even have words for,” says Rose of shooting the miniseries during summer in New Orleans. “But it really puts you in the right space — like, there was no comfort.”
Right off the bat, there were creative difficulties. Many African-American writers just wouldn’t touch the material. And other writers were resistant to incorporating the historical material that has come to light in the 40 years since Haley’s book first was published and that Wolper and A+E’s development team viewed as essential in their reimagining of the project. This version, for instance, incorporates new information about the Mandinka culture in Juffure, Gambia, including the tribe’s rich musical and storytelling traditions, while night four depicts the brutal treatment endured by slaves who fought with the Union Army during the Civil War.
“There were problems across the board — writers, actors, producers, cinematographers — they all had hesitations,” says Wolper. “It was like, ‘It’s too iconic, it’s too political, it’s too whatever.’ ”
Dubuc’s team at History wanted to back away from the deal. “It was nerve-racking,” she says. “Everybody knows the risk of association.” But knowing how few properties could match Roots‘ name-brand appeal and potential to break out, Dubuc pressed on.
“How can we be special? How can we say something about our brand, our company, our storytelling capabilities? Those projects are few and far between,” she says.
From left: Kirby, director Mario Van Peebles, Forest Whitaker and Emayatzy Corinealdi on set. “It’s good to be a part of the dialogue, a part of the conversation to move things forward,” says Whitaker.
A+E sought counsel from several historians, who worked with the writers. Lawrence Konner (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and Mark Rosenthal (who has co-written several screenplays with Konner, including the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes) share writing credits on nights one and four. Alison McDonald (Red Band Society) and Charles Murray (Sons of Anarchy) wrote nights two and three, respectively.
Casting was the next hurdle, especially the critical roles of Kunta Kinte and Chicken George, Kinte’s grandson. The producers embarked on a global search that took them beyond their New York/L.A. comfort zones and into Zimbabwe and Congo. Kirby was handpicked by Burton, and Rege-Jean Page, also British and of Zimbabwean descent, was tapped to star as Chicken George. Kirby, who had roles in the British series EastEnders and Dr. Who, actually was discovered in an early screen test in London. But Burton and the producers continued their search and only in the end came back to Kirby, asking him to fly to South Africa, where director Noyce (Salt, Patriot Games) was in preproduction, to read in person.
Seeing Kirby perform the role in person, says Burton, “elevated that one-dimensional performance that we had seen so many times on tape to something that was living and breathing. And it was there that my heart just opened, exploded open.” Burton is sitting next to Kirby when he relays this, and he becomes emotional, his voice catching. “There is no doubt in my mind. He’s the one.”
“Every single day of this shoot presented a new challenge,” says Kirby, who plays Kunta Kinte.
The rest of the cast is impressively stocked with A-listers; along with Rose (a Tony winner who co-starred in the Oscar-nominated film Dreamgirls), there is Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Mekhi Phifer, rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Anna Paquin.
“You always want the headliners for those people that are drama and entertainment aficionados first,” says Dubuc. “But we’re also trying to build a cast of actor’s actors.”
And because each two-hour installment is told through the lens of a different character, the producers decided to hire four directors and give them free rein to execute their vision of the material. “The content lends itself to that kind of individual-perspective filmmaking,” says Packer.
One of the first directors they approached was Mario Van Peebles — the actor-director whose father, Melvin, helmed one of the first blaxploitation films, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song — and he had reservations. “I grew up in a by-any-means-necessary independent filmmaking family,” says Van Peebles, who was studying economics at Columbia when the original Roots premiered. “When my dad did Sweet Sweetback’s in 1971, that was the first movie where the lead was an African-American who stood up against the system and won and had facial hair. So that was a big step. What my dad and I did discuss about Roots [is that] it was ballsy to show American history through the eyes of someone other than the dominant culture.”
Still, the original Roots has its deficiencies. It hasn’t aged well at all; Burton admits that it feels “dated.” At times, it’s also overly sentimental and historically dubious. A handful of white characters diverge seriously from Haley’s novel, most conspicuously a benevolent slave-ship captain played by Ed Asner. And the white actors (Lorne Greene, Robert Reed, Sandy Duncan), though their roles were peripheral, were prominent in the network promos.
“I asked [Wolper, who is white] point-blank, why are we doing Roots, and is the intent to do his story or our story?” recalls Van Peebles. “He said: ‘You do your take on the two hours. You treat it like a film. You’re going to get this budget. You’re not interfacing with the other guys. You’re going to do your look.’ And knowing that, I felt I would be freed up to do something I was proud of.”
The other directors include Thomas Carter, who broke barriers as an actor on The White Shadow and later helmed the pilot of Michael Mann’s groundbreaking TV series Miami Vice, and Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), who helmed nights three and four, respectively. Noyce, the Australian director known mostly for action movies, was pressed into service after John Singleton, who had initially — excitedly — agreed to direct night one, had to drop out because he was committed to a pilot.
From left: Lane Garrison, Paquin, Sedale Threatt Jr. and Phifer.
“I think he wanted to do Roots so badly that he forgot he actually had a pilot deal,” says Wolper, laughing. “He flew to Africa, and then he was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to go back and do this other show.’ We go, ‘Yeah, but we have to shoot now.’ “
Noyce admits to being apprehensive. “It’s very hard as a white Australian to take on this responsibility,” he says of retelling such an ugly chapter of American history. And not everyone agrees on what historically is true. Noyce recently parted ways with HBO’s American Lion following disagreements over how to depict the darker aspects of Andrew Jackson’s history, which included owning hundreds of slaves and signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830. (Lionsgate, which is producing the biopic for HBO, had no comment. A source tells THR that Noyce was fired for not providing a work stop date.) Says Noyce, “I think truth is really important.”
One big reason Nancy Dubuc has taken on such a daunting challenge is that she has little choice — A+E Networks must do something dramatic to break out of its slump. The multiplatform content explosion and the fatigue of the reality genre have caught up to basic cable, with many big network groups seeing double-digit declines in viewership in recent years. To be sure, A+E Networks has begun to stanch the bleed after hitting a nadir in 2015. Year-over-year, History still is down 7 percent among total viewers, while A&E is off 12 percent. But Dubuc wants Roots to do more than score high ratings and win awards. She wants to further establish the A+E Networks brand as a destination for quality scripted content. Lifetime’s UnREAL, the Peabody-winning scripted hit series about a Bachelor-esque reality show, has been another important step in this direction. But the seriousness of Roots represents a much greater leap. How large an audience can A+E reach with such difficult, discomfiting subject matter?
“Many black people don’t know the details of some of this history because we don’t teach it in general,” says Carter. “We know that there was slavery, but the particulars of the brutality of American slavery — the destruction of family, the dehumanization, things that have continued to affect us — we just don’t even talk about it.”
That is beginning to change; social media, the exposure of police brutally (much of it caught on iPhones), overwhelmingly lopsided incarceration rates among minorities, and the willingness of Hollywood to embark on projects like Roots is advancing the racial justice dialogue.
The Roots reboot was greenlighted in fall 2013, a few months after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Here, members of Black Lives Matter participate in the annual MLK Holiday Peace Walk this January in Washington, D.C.
“The common perception is, ‘Oh, there have been so many slave movies,’ ” says Packer. “Really? Have there really been that many? How do you get, especially that younger generation, to embrace this? Because at the end of the day, that’s why we’re all here. That’s the challenge. Will it have the same impact as the original? Will 85 percent of households be watching? No, never again will that happen. But it can have a different impact. These filmmakers did an amazing job of not shying away from the atrocities. But it’s not just about the pain. It’s really about courage and survival. It’s inspirational, and it’s aspirational, and those are the elements that I want to get our youth to embrace. That’s the message.”
The realism of the brutality and sadism in this version of Roots often can be difficult to watch. The racist language — including frequent use of the N-word — is jarring. Dubuc says that there wasn’t much hand-wringing about the N-word. “We don’t have a choice to use it or not use it. If we don’t use it, it wouldn’t be authentic to what actually happened.
“We wanted to make sure it wasn’t gratuitous and that we never felt like, ‘OK, enough,’ ” she continues. “And that was a nuance that I relied on the directors and the actors and the writers to hit. But I think it would have been almost more inflaming not use it. It would be denying what happened.”
Nonetheless, for many of the actors and directors, making Roots often was wrenching. Kirby recalls an especially brutal scene with a white actor (he won’t say which one), but “it was a scene where brutality was inflicted on me, and he was calling me a n—er. And at the end of it, he is in tears, and he apologizes to me. And that was beautiful. There is a beautiful hope that comes out of that, that even as an actor that he feels the need to apologize just speaks volumes of the times that we’re living in right now. Yes, racism still exists, and ignorance still exists. But that’s part of the reason we’re retelling this story, to speak to those people and hopefully a new generation that if they don’t learn, they will continue in yesterdays.”
Adds Van Peebles: “It’s tough. There were times when I was like, ‘This is some bizarre alternate reality.’ It’s hard to believe we actually did this; that this was something we endured. This was a few hundred years ago. It’s some insane shit. It’s much easier to not deal with it.”
In one particularly revealing scene, 8-year-old Kizzy is having a tea party with the daughter of her slave-owner master who has become her best friend and another white girl who is hostile to the girls’ interracial friendship.
In 1977 Nielsen only counted households — and it counted 36.4 million (more than half of all homes with televisions) watching the final episode of ‘Roots.’ That’s roughly 100 million people, making it still the most watched miniseries ever.
“How weird is it to be directing three beautiful little girls together and go, ‘OK, now this is where you call her a n—er lover?’ ” says Van Peebles. “So I would tell her, ‘OK, now remember your lines, and now absolutely forget all your lines and never say them again!’ They were like 8, 9. In between takes, they’d go play together and laugh and giggle. There were times when I had to just be the filmmaker in order to function on it. And there were times when I could just sit back and be ashamed and affected and moved and inspired as a human being.”
Van Peebles’ son Mandela also has a pivotal role in the same installment, playing the biracial son of a slave and a white plantation owner. (To avoid the perception of nepotism, Mandela used his first and middle name — Mandela Mali — during the casting process.) He is shot in the back while attempting to flee the plantation. It is a scene that recalls so many recent shootings of black men.
“It wasn’t something I was braced to do,” says Van Peebles of working with his son on such a highly charged scene. “The way we shot the assassination and the way it reads is ultimately so unfortunately timeless. It’s going to be hard to watch this for some people — especially me as a parent — and not think about where we are now.”
A+E executives certainly hope that is the takeaway. They’ve left nothing to chance, rolling out events like the one at the White House. There have been others: at historically black colleges including Howard University, at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and at the annual convention of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in April in New York. Sharpton has a big megaphone thanks to his Sunday MSNBC show and a nationally syndicated radio program that airs in more than 100 cities.
“I will be talking it up,” says Sharpton. “If we can create the conversation, [Roots] will not only get a wide viewership, it will evolve the discussions about race — hopefully, from yelling at each other to really talking about the pain and what we’re going to do in the post-Obama era.”
Back at the White House, Kirby and the Roots crew are posing for selfies in the rain. They are under the enormous white oak trees that line the driveway at the west end of the north White House lawn and where there are several semi-permanent press tents to facilitate live shots with the North Portico as a backdrop.
For them, it is a break from the heaviness inside the South Court Auditorium, where the first episode of Roots is playing for the predominantly African-American audience of invited guests that includes educators, activists and students.
From left: Executive producer Wolper, Kirby, Rose, Burton and executive producer Packer attended the White House screening of ‘Roots’ on May 17. Says Rose of the racist language in the miniseries: “It affects me much more during this election cycle than it did creating that role, being in that time period. [Hearing it now] is much more shocking.”
It already has been an emotional day. And now the final harrowing scene of night one begins to unfold: Kunta Kinte has attempted to escape — for the first but not the last time. Chased down by dogs, captured and brought back to the plantation in chains, he is strung up to a post for a beating. Kunta has been given the name Toby by his master’s wife, which he roundly has rejected. And now the brutal plantation overseer is going to beat his Mandinka name out of him.
“Your name is Toby! What’s your name?” the overseer seethes as the whip, festooned with nails and bits of glass, slices into the flesh on Kinte’s back. Blood splashes to the dusty ground. Bits of tissue curl out of the deepening gashes. The sound of the whip seems to get louder. The scene lasts four long minutes. When it ends, and the lights come up, the audience sits in silent horror. Many wipe away tears. Others bury their heads in their hands.
Kirby has been to many of these screenings. And he says he always feels the need to apologize to members of the audience.
“They just dried up their tears,” he says. “And I kept saying, ‘I’m sorry.'”
He adds, “Everyone I spoke to has been touched by it in some way. And everyone I spoke to wasn’t left feeling angry. And that was one of my prayers for this project — not that it would bring up more anger and more pain but that it would give them more understanding and more healing and also bring about a very healthy conversation. And I hope that that conversation leads to action because as far as we’ve come, there’s quite a way to go.”
This story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.