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Mark Wolper was terrified to remake Roots.
His father, David L. Wolper, executive produced the original 1977 miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel about 100 years of history of one man’s family from being raised in Africa to being sold into slavery to overcoming his circumstances. The series won nine Emmy Awards, still holds the record as one of the highest-rated series of all time and sparked a new conversation about race relations in this country.
“It’s sort of the triple whammy,” Wolper told The Hollywood Reporter at the Tribeca Film Festival. Wolper eventually conquered his fears and executive produced a reboot of the series, which screened at the festival and will premiere on the History Channel on May 30, almost 40 years after the original. Wolper changed his mind when he made his own son watch the 1977 show, and while his son acknowledged the story’s performance, he didn’t feel like it spoke to him.
“It was in that moment that I realized why we need to do Roots again, why I have to get over that fear of that triple whammy and try to tell this story again for a whole new generation,” Wolper said.
Wolper executive produced the project alongside Will Packer, known for such films as Think Like a Man, Ride Along and Straight Outta Compton, and the latter feels similarly about inspiring young people, especially those who are angered by the state of the country.
“I empathize with the young generation that fights against the system of oppression … how is this going to be received by that audience?” Packer asked the crowd during a heartfelt discussion after the Tribeca screening. “There’s a whole generation out there who thinks they know this story … I don’t think they know they are direct descendants of warriors.”
Regé-Jean Page, who plays Chicken George in the series, remembers his family making him watch the original to learn about his ancestry. Page says he is one of the few actors who actually grew up in Africa (he grew up in Zimbabwe), and seeing an honest portrayal of African life onscreen was important to him.
“You kind of get it as a bit of a right of passage as a young man of color,” said Page. “A well-meaning adult put me in front of it and said, ‘Watch this, this is your brussel sprouts. It will make you better and more healthy.’”
Malachi Kirby, who plays the lead Kunta Kinte, purposefully didn’t read Haley’s book in preparation for the role. He had seen the original series, in which LeVar Burton plays Kunta Kinte (Burton is also an executive producer on the new project), but Kirby didn’t want to recreate his performance.
“I just wanted to respond to the story the same way that he did with his own intuition,” said Kirby, adding the he prayed before every take to get through the difficult story. “For me, this story is not just about slavery, especially for African-American and African people in general. It’s a story to remind us that our roots are not slavery, but that they predate that. “
And Erica Tazel, who plays Chicken George’s wife Matilda, hopes this version sparks a similar discussion among viewers as the first version did. “There were several conversations that were sparked between blacks and whites at the time and also sparked an interest across the board about, what is our collective American story and history?” she said. “I don’t think that’s a conversation that would be a bad idea to revisit.”
While the original Roots broke television viewing records, Wolper acknowledges that the way the world consumes entertainment is different today. “We’re never going to have the audience that the original Roots had — the environment of television is very different,” Wolper says, but he and Packer want it to have the same effect.
“Hopefully this will be the Roots that will last another 40 years,” Packer said to the rapt crowd.
“And my son will do that one,” Wolper added, with a laugh.
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Tribeca Film Festival