As far as television events go, it remains one of the most influential of all time. Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 book, the miniseries Roots — which premiered in 1977 — charts the author’s family, from the time ancestor Kunta Kinte is taken from his African village, made a slave and brought to America. It was a ratings giant and the winner of nine Emmy Awards.
A new version of the story starts May 30, airing on the History Channel for four nights, with a cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Anika Noni Rose, Anna Paquin and Laurence Fishburne. Newcomer Malachi Kirby takes on the iconic role of Kunta Kinte. A special screening of the first episode of the new miniseries was held recently at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, with a panel discussion moderated by Jeff Johnson of BET.
Two of those involved have Atlanta ties. Will Packer, of the former Rainforest Films and now Will Packer Productions, and films such as Straight Outta Compton, is an executive producer, while recording artist and actor Tip “T.I’.” Harris plays Cyrus, a slave who is fighting for his freedom in America. They joined a panel that included Tamarre Torchon, president of the Atlanta Chapter of the National Action Network; Dr. Sam Livingston, director of the African-American Studies Department at Morehouse College; and radio personality Ryan Cameron (WVEE-FM).
T.I. admitted this wasn’t a project he said yes to immediately. It took some time to make up his mind. “I will say with great honesty that I was one of those people who told Will Packer I did not want to see another slave movie,” he said. “We went back and forth.”
The filming wasn’t easy. T.I. recalled being on a plantation in New Orleans, getting bitten by mosquitoes and dealing with emotionally draining situations. “We were reminded how important this was,” he said. “We forget that there were times when there more important things to be concerned about than Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat. It’s important for us to see this so we know firsthand.”
Packer, too, had his own reservations. “This is a journey for us, especially as black people living in America,” he said. “When I was approached, I said, ‘Hell no. Roots?’ Then I went and tried to re-watch the first one. It is almost 40 years old. It literally doesn’t have any of ‘this’ — ‘this’ was real deal production values, a lot of time, energy and detail to get this right.”
Reflecting after he watched the original series, he realized that a remake of Roots could be the most important work he’s done. “I said to myself, I said, ‘I can be a part of Takers, Ride Along, Straight Outta Comption, Stomp the Yard, and I am proud of them all,’” Packer said. “Yet, here I have an opportunity to do something that will affect us in a completely different way. I am so proud of this. Everything I have done in my career has lead me to this.”
Packer realizes that this isn’t an easy sell for some. These days, the average TV viewer has hundreds of channels to choose from. When Roots first aired, three channels existed.
The subject matter might scare off others who have seen the original, or similar subject matter. Packer says it’s especially important for African-Americans to know their own history. “I have caught some flak for this,” Packer said. “(People say), ‘I know the story. I have seen it.’ I want to say, you don’t. There are people out there who are still trying to make slaves — Donald Trump.”
Another challenge is how to convince non-black audiences to watch this. “We keep saying, this is our story, as if it’s not their story, too,” Packer said. “Really, this is a global story that connected continents and wealth, resources and power in a way that no single incident did. If we talk about it that way, perhaps we can change the narrative about who needs to watch it. “
Cameron recalled watching the original and having it stir up emotions. When news broke that a new version of Roots was being made, he conducted a poll on his radio show asking people if it was necessary. The response was overwhelming that another slave movie was not needed. Yet he went home and got another perspective. “My wife said, ‘You need to understand, as soon as Jewish people are able to think, they show them the Holocaust, they put that in their minds early. We need to see this so people can learn it early and know why our stories are important.’” His opinion changed after that.
When Torchon watched the original in the eighth grade, she didn’t grasp the impact. She does now. “For me to watch it now — I had to take a moment and step out to breathe because I almost choked,” she said. “Every college student, every child/youth, needs to see this. To understand this is what you have behind you, this is the lineage people have set forth for you.”
Camille Love, executive director of cultural affairs for the city of Atlanta, was in attendance and pleaded for T.I and Packer to continue making these kinds of films. “What Jewish people have done is tell their stories — Schindler’s List, a whole litany of them, that have instilled a certain amount of pride in Jewish people,” she said. “People have taught them how to stick together. For those that have the power to influence what the new generation is going to know about this, I encourage you to now make these kinds of movies that can tell these stories. And not allow the media to control the images we see of ourselves. “
Also in attendance was Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and United States Ambassador to the United Nations. He recalled how powerful the miniseries was when it was first aired, and how it lead to change. “As this was playing, Jimmy Carter asked me to be his ambassador at the United Nations,” Young said. “He gave me a note saying, I want you to go to Africa and ask African leaders what they expect of this administration and how we can help them.
Young went to Africa in 1977 and talked to 22 African presidents. “Out of that came our strategy,” Young said. “There is a sense that Roots helped galvanize the nation to the point where we had the best Africa policy we ever had.”