Will the History Channel's 'Roots' remake 'get it right'?

OPINION - News of the History Channel’s plans to remake Roots may have been unexpected but, given the box office success of Django Unchained and the critical acclaim of the more highly regarded 12 Years a Slave, it should come as no true surprise...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

News of the History Channel’s plans to remake Roots may have been unexpected but, given the box office success of Django Unchained and the critical acclaim of the more highly regarded 12 Years a Slave, it should come as no true surprise.

Some say “slavery is hot” in Hollywood but, more truthfully, audiences seem to thirst for a fuller and more complex look at American History, of which slavery plays a critical part.

Besides, it’s not like someone dug Roots up. Earlier this year, emotions got heated when Quentin Tarantino took shots at the iconic television miniseries. Needless to say, his claims that “nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either” didn’t go over well. Although Roots didn’t “move” Tarantino, there’s no denying that it moved a nation.

Today it’s hard to imagine any television production seriously impacting the nation’s psyche, but that’s exactly what Roots did when it aired on ABC in January 1977. Its eight-night broadcast was unprecedented. And its ratings were even more so. Seven of the eight episodes drew an estimated 80 million viewers each, with 100 million Americans, representing nearly half the country, tuning into the eighth and final episode.

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The miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s best-selling book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, became a cultural phenomenon, sparking public conversations that had long been avoided. Roots forced the nation to collectively address slavery. Whereas Hollywood tended to avoid slavery altogether or, even worse, romanticized it as “the good ole days,” Roots disrupted those notions. It not only made slavery real, but it forced the nation to acknowledge it as a brutal institution. Equally important, Roots underscored how black Americans stood up to the horror, forging families, cultural traditions and racial pride amid tremendous adversity. Kunta Kinte, Chicken George, Fiddler and Kizzy became household names, and LeVar Burton, Louis Gossett, Jr. and Ben Vereen were catapulted to stardom.

Even today Roots, as evidenced by the strong reactions to Tarantino’s statements, evokes strong emotions. It also draws ratings. BET’s airing of the miniseries last December drew a more than respectable 4.1 million viewers for the opening two episodes. So why, as some ask, mess with a classic?

It’s Hollywood, so anything with a proven track record on the big or small screen is game to be remade. Add in the great box office reception to Django Unchained and the buzz surrounding 12 Years a Slave in theaters now, and the time, in Hollywood terms, has never been more right. Roots didn’t come out of a vacuum either. It tapped into a best-selling book as well as piggybacked on such television successes as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.  

Also, it’s hard to ignore that much of the country is once again ready to confront this history. And, truthfully, African-American scholarship has grown by leaps and bounds since Roots. Henry Louis Gates has even created his own niche with PBS for such programming. In this digital age, so much specific information is more widely available. People no longer have to go to rare book stores or historical archives to access critical information. Even not-so-well-known slave narratives, for example, are shared on sites like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South, also known as DocSouth.

Of course there are critics. There have always been and always will be. Writing for theGrio, Demetria L. Lucas co-signed Orville Lloyd Douglas, who wrote an essay for The Guardian announcing his intention to not watch The Butler or 12 Years a Slave. Lucas agreed with Douglas’ sentiment that “I am exhausted and bored with these kinds of ‘dramatic race’ films.”

Lucas writes, “I am proud of my great-great grandfather and all the relatives before him who were born into slavery. I have nothing but respect for the women and men who were leaders in the church on Sunday, and to provide for their families scrubbed white folks’ floors and their silver on Mondays. These men and women have fascinating stories that deserve to be told, and often. But their tales aren’t the only ones worth telling. And they shouldn’t be the only ones coming out of Hollywood.”

In UPTOWN magazine’s October/November issue, Alfre Woodard, anticipating such criticism, notes that nobody ever says, “There are too many Holocaust stories,” or “There are too many gangster movies,” but adds that “we tell three stories [about slavery] and they want us to be done.”

For Woodard, films like 12 Years a Slave, in which she has a small part, “give us a common language, a common emotional experience, whether you’re British, West African, West Indian or American.”

More importantly it gives the nation and the world, regardless of color and cultural experience, a starting point to engage in these difficult conversations. And in recent years, the History Channel has enjoyed popular success with unlikely subject matter. Like truly, who predicted The Bible, whose stories Hollywood has told time and time again, to be such a ratings bonanza? So why not update Roots?

With television shows like American Horror Story: Coven unexpectedly mixing and mingling fact and fiction with black storylines that touch upon slavery and Jim Crow with much success, the History Channel is not exactly stepping out on faith. As one Deadline.com comment notes, “each generation likes to see these stories with actors of their own era.” Like it or not, Roots has become part of a canon of sorts and the History Channel is just acknowledging that. Like American History textbooks, even a groundbreaking television phenom like Roots could use some updating. So the question isn’t “Why the History Channel is doing this?” but, rather, “Will they get it right?”

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.