When the original Roots aired in 1977, nearly 85 percent of American homes watched some part of the eight-night event on the saga of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) and his descendants. The finale alone attracted 100 million viewers, which is astounding when you consider that this is before most Americans had ever encountered acronyms like DVR or VCR.
But even more shocking than the historic ratings, is that the fact that Roots ever got made at all.
Best known for his searing interviews with figures like Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali in Playboy, as well as for his first book 1965’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley captured the literary world’s attention with Roots in 1976. The book recounts his ancestral legacy, his lineage traced back to a Gambian village in 18th century, where Kunta Kinte is captured by slavers, loaded like cargo onto a slave ship, then sold in America.
The book landed at a fiery time in our nation’s cultural history. In 1976, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy hadn’t been dead a decade. Jim Crow laws had only been gone a few years longer. Even the last living former slave, Sylvester Magee, held on until 1971. In other words, it hadn’t been all that long in our history since we held Americans in chains, yet very few people had any concept of what slavery looked like outside of Gone With the Wind.
When Roots hit the market, it went to the top of bestseller lists for 22 weeks. That’s all well and good for people who read books, but ABC was still taking a chance on the miniseries. There was no guarantee that a largely white audience would tune in to see a then-unknown Burton being tortured at the hands of white people. They was no certainty that the audience would keep coming back for seven more nights to watch Kinte’s kin raped, beaten and swindled, but they did. Roots was so successful that it won nine of the 37 Emmy Awards for which it was nominated, as well as a Golden Globe and a Peabody, and it spawned spin-off series that did well in their own rights.
The success of Roots was not without controversy, however. After a lawsuit alleged that parts of the book were plagiarized from a novel by Harold Courlander called The African, Haley settled out of court, admitting that certain passages were, indeed, lifted from the earlier work. Then there was the issue of whether Haley truly had traced his family’s lineage back to a single person in Gambia. Most scholars came to doubt that, with Harvard professor (and host of the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots) Henry Louis Gates telling The Boston Globe in 1998: “Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship.”
Still, the novel remains a testament to the horrors of slavery, if not of Haley’s own family. Roots paved the way for modern works like 12 Years a Slave and even Django Unchained, and is, without doubt, still a relevant document.
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As Burton told PEOPLE in this week’s issue, “Being a black man in America is still a dangerous experience.”
And with the new series telling the story from a fresh perspective, it’s still an experience that TV audiences are being invited to understand. “I don’t expect or even anticipate the kind of societal tsunami that Roots was the first time around,” adds Burton, “but I do expect that we can be a part of a conversation that’s so necessary.”
The History channel’s Roots reboot premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET and runs nightly through Thursday.