Remaking ‘Roots’ for a New Generation -- and Being a Catalyst for Conversation

by Stacy Lambe 11:05 AM PDT, May 27, 2016
Photo: History Channel

The story of Kunta Kinte’s abduction from Africa into slavery is being retold for a new generation.

On Memorial Day, History Channel will premiere its remake of Roots, the landmark ABC miniseries that was a ratings phenomenon, earned 37 Emmy nominations, and made LeVar Burton -- who went on to host Reading Rainbow and join Star Trek: The Next Generation -- a star. The finale was watched by an estimated 100 million people and still remains one of the most watched episodes of TV.

The miniseries, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, spans multiple centuries, tracing author Alex Haley’s genealogy back to 1750s West Africa. The eight-hour remake, airing over four nights, starts in Gambia and follows the journey of African Americans up through the Civil War.

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First airing in 1977, the original Roots was the first time American audiences witnessed slavery from the African-American perspective. The new series comes in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and follows films like 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, and FX’s anthology series, American Crime Story, the first season of which told the story of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

“It is no secret that America is faced with the same kinds of challenges that spring from slavery,” Burton, the original Kinte and now a co-executive producer of the remake, tells ET during a visit to the set in Louisiana, adding that the country’s legacy of racism “hasn’t gone away.”

Photo: History Channel

It’s been nearly 40 years since the original miniseries aired. So why remake it now?

For executive producer Mark Wolper, whose father, David, produced the original Roots, it was about connecting his experience to that of his children’s. When he tried watching the original with his kids, Wolper told The New York Times that he realized it was “no longer good enough.”

“This is bringing this film back in a new way that speaks to that generation. So, the power of the first Roots lives not on the first Roots but lives in the new Roots,” Wolper tells ET.

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“You can’t make it any bigger. You can’t make it any more iconic, but you know what you can do? You can make it for a new generation,” William Packer, executive producer of the remake, says. “It’s a really interesting look at a really important piece of history that I’m proud to be a part of telling it for a generation that doesn’t know it, with the hopes that then it will be passed along and the story will never be forgotten.”

While admitting there is no competing with the original, the production value far exceeds the original’s $6.6 million. According to The New York Times, it’s among History Channel’s parent company, A&E Networks’ costliest productions. “The way that young kids expect TV to look now is very different than it was in the ‘70s and this visually looks a way that will draw in younger people, which I think is important,” Anna Paquin, who plays Nancy Holt, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Photo: History Channel

In addition to an all-star cast, including Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Anika Noni Rose, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, T.I., Matthew Goode, Mekhi Phifer, and Paquin, the production spanned two continents. The slave ships scenes were filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, while seven different real Louisiana plantations were used for a number of U.S. scenes. Locations in Savannah, Georgia, served as the backdrop for Africa. Over 21,000 historically-accurate costumes were produced and stored in a New Orleans-based warehouse, with one corset slimming Paquin down to a 23-inch waist.

The production also has the benefit of 40 years of discovery, which has led to a more accurate production and understanding of Kinte’s world before he was in America. “Kunta’s origin story will have a very different flavor this time around,” Burton says.

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Taking over Kinte’s role is newcomer Malachi Kirby, an English actor with a few episodes of EastEnders and Doctor Who under his belt. The experience of tracing back one’s ancestry after watching the original miniseries was not lost on the actor, who was inspired to explore his own lineage, believing he has family from West Africa. “I want to trace those roots, literally,” he says.

While the prospect of wider fame is not lost on Kirby, the actor admits there’s no preparing for the scrutiny or stardom to follow. “Even with this role, it wasn’t really something I could prepare for,” he explains. “I’ve never been through anything like this, you know, in terms of what Kunta Kinte goes through.”  

Photo: History Channel

Instead, he used the experiences on set, reacting to what happens to his character, such as the day ET was on set while the actor filmed the scene where his daughter, Kizzy (Brittany M. Parker), is taken away from him on the plantation where they are slaves. “So, when we’re doing a scene like this, we have all of those connections that we’ve already made genuinely, it’s hard. It’s harder to do it over and over again, such a heavy scene like this, because it feels real,” Kirby says.

“He will be the Kunta for this new generation,” Burton says, adding that it was important for Kirby to portray the character his way. “He has a remarkable ability to tell the truth on camera. This role really requires someone that the audience can anchor themselves to, someone that they can identify with. It’s easy to see oneself in Malachi.”

“When I close my eyes and dream, what I want for this generation’s Roots is to be a catalyst for conversation,” Burton says. “I want to bring America together.”

Roots premieres on Monday, May 30 at 9 p.m. ET on History Channel. 

--Additionally reporting from Kevin Frazier