The 1977 ABC television miniseries Roots was a deeply significant cultural event. Based on the book Roots: The Saga of An American Family by Alex Haley, the eight-part miniseries chronicled the lives of an African-American family (based on Haley’s own family history), from the year 1750 to about 1861, all of whom descended from Kunta Kinte (Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s LeVar Burton in his first major role), a man who was kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery.
The miniseries was seen by between 130 and 140 million people, and is still the third highest-rated show of all time, inspiring a sequel miniseries and a Christmas-themed TV movie. Nearly forty years later, Roots remains an iconic look at American history’s biggest sin, as well as a template for many historically-themed miniseries which came after.
Now, during a time when the subject of slavery is at the forefront of the public consciousness (thanks to movies like Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave), Deadline reports that the History Channel is developing a new eight-hour miniseries remake, which will take inspiration both from the book and the original series. The cable channel will reportedly soon be talking with writers and presumably directors. According to History’s Executive Vice-President Dirk Hoogstra:
“We would like to revive that cultural icon for a new audience.”
The History Channel has had a string of successes with fictionalized small-screen versions of historical subjects, with its popular Vikings series, the big audience draw of The Bible, as well as the surprise hit miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. The specific subject of race relations in America has also been front and center in the past few years, with The Help, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Lincoln all bringing this issue into focus in different ways – as did the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Hoogstra acknowledges that “History in general is in the zeitgeist, which is great for us being a network whose name is History.”
The original Roots shattered ratings, and with its groundbreaking largely black cast (which included Louis Gossett, Jr., John Amos and Ben Vereen) it paved the way for similar undertakings in the future. However, there were legal issues with the original book which remain little known: author Alex Haley admitted to plagiarizing portions of Roots from a previously-published novel The African, and some researchers took issue with Haley’s assertion that he had traced his lineage back through history to one single person. These aspects may or may not be worth clearing up with the new series’ adaptation.
Still, Roots remains iconic, and while it appears that History jump-started this project only in the wake of the racial-themed projects referenced above – shades of unsightly exploitation of a still-raw subject – a fresh perspective and adaptation could be a decidedly positive take on what remains a blight on this country’s past.
Roots is in development at the History Channel.