Alex Haley and the Making of the Original “Roots”

With the premiere of History's Roots remake, beginning on May 30th, we're taking a look back at the original history-making miniseries.
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LeVar Burton in Roots Photo ABC/Photofest

LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte in the ABC miniseries Roots (1977). (Photo: ABC/Photofest)

If you weren’t there—if you’ve only known television in its post-Big Three networks era—it’s hard to understand the impact of the original Roots. Based on Alex Haley’s book of “faction,” the ABC miniseries’ 12 hours (with commercials) were spread across eight consecutive nights in January 1977, an unprecedented programming move that consolidated the show’s status as an event. The subsequent audience ratings were also unprecedented: 85% of television households, or 130 to 140 million Americans (more than half the U.S. population) saw at least part of the series; an estimated 100 million viewers tuned in for the two-hour finale on Sunday, January 30. 

The upcoming remake of Roots, which will air on History over four nights beginning May 30th, cannot hope to come close to those numbers, nor is the show likely to inspire the flood of commentary or genealogical research that came in the original’s wake. Whatever its quality (the remake is produced by Mark Wolper, son of the original’s producer David L. Wolper), school curricula will probably not be revamped to the same extent to accommodate it, nor will it influence programming practice for years to come. The media universe is too diffuse, the union seemingly more divided than ever. 

Alex Haley, author of Roots:The Saga of an American Family. (Photo: Mickey Adair/Getty Images)

Alex Haley, author of Roots:The Saga of an American Family. (Photo: Mickey Adair/Getty Images)

But the emergence of a new Roots does provide an opportunity to look back on the origins of not only the broadcast phenomenon but the literary phenomenon that preceded it. 

Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York in 1921, but shortly thereafter moved to Henning, Tennessee, from whence his mother hailed. The roots of what became Roots lay in the tales his maternal grandmother and other family members would tell of their slave ancestors, particularly a man named Kunta Kinte who had been captured from his Mandinka village of Juffure (in present-day Gambia). These oral narratives, which had been passed down for generations, provided crucial links to a past that was not otherwise well documented.

Prior to Roots, Haley’s literary reputation rested on a series of interview pieces for Playboy and on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a collaboration with the subject that was completed and published shortly after the former Nation of Islam leader’s death in 1965. The book became a best seller, which afforded Haley the freedom and opportunity to turn back his own family history, embarking on a decade of research and travel to trace the roots of his ancestor Kunta Kinte, who, the story had it, refused his slave name of Toby. Haley stood on the Annapolis, Maryland docks where Kinte had likely disembarked in chains, examined records of the ship he thought had transported the young African on the harrowing Middle Passage, and most importantly, visited Juffure and spoke with a griot who seemed to connect the dots between his African and American lineage.

The result was the 688-page Roots:The Saga of an American Family, published by Doubleday in October 1976. The book, which was categorized as non-fiction, took up the story of Kunta Kinte with his birth in 1750, depicted his abduction and enslavement as a teenager, and advanced through his generations of descendants, including daughter Kizzy, grandson Chicken George, and great-grandson Tom, who led the family into freedom following the Civil War and became father to Alex Haley’s grandmother Cynthia. Roots immediately took up residence on the New York Times Best Sellers list, and remained there for almost a year, occupying the #1 spot for 22 weeks. Among its honors were the National Book Award and a special Pulitzer Prize.

Even before the book was published, Wolper’s $6-million miniseries was well into production in California and, subbing for West Africa, the coast of Georgia. The cast list read like a Who’s Who of 1970s-era black talent: John Amos (as the adult Kinte), Leslie Uggams (as Kizzy), Ben Vereen (as Chicken George), Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, Madge Sinclair, Georg Stanford Brown, Olivia Cole, Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, even O.J. Simpson in a bit as a Mandinka warrior. Nineteen-year-old unknown LeVar Burton was cast as the teenage Kunta Kinte, with Amos taking over the role in episode 3. ABC, uncertain of the show’s ratings potential, also packed the cast with familiar white faces like Ed Asner, Lorne Greene, Robert Reed, Ralph Waite, and Sandy Duncan. The network’s decision to air the entire miniseries in little over a week’s time was also seen as a loss-cutting measure. 

Malachi Kirby in Roots Photo By Steve Dietl/©History 2016

Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in History's remake of Roots. (Photo By Steve Dietl/©History 2016)

As it turned out, no such caution was warranted. White viewers who tuned in to Roots night after night were unlikely to have been holding out for appearances by Lynda Day George or Chuck Connors; from the evidence, they were as riveted by its multi-generational tale of oppression and ultimate if conditional freedom as were  African-American audiences. Reviews were mixed to favorable — on the negative side, critics cited the melodramatic machinery underpinning the saga as well as the inauthenticity of some of its settings. But everyone recognized it as a cultural landmark. The show was nominated for a record 37 Emmys, winning nine. It spawned a sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, which aired in 1979 to less impact but still sizable ratings.

Inevitably, naysayers emerged very soon after the publication of Haley’s book and the airing of the miniseries: the author’s much-vaunted research had serious gaps and shortcomings; the Gambian griot was unreliable; there were inaccuracies in his depiction of Mandinkan and antebellum Southern life. Haley, who died in 1992 in the midst of charting his paternal ancestry in the book Queen (which itself became a miniseries), was also the subject of two plagiarism suits, one of which he was forced to settle. 

Malachi Kirby and Levar Burton Roots Photo by Casey Crafford ©2016

Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte and LeVar Burton, who played the role in the original miniseries and is co-executive producer of History's Roots remake. (Photo: Casey Crafford/©History 2016)

History’s Roots remake, which counts LeVar Burton as a co-executive producer, and stars Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte, Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy, and Regé-Jean Page as Chicken George, is said to correct some of the earlier show’s perceived errors, representing 18th-century Juffure, for example, as a worldly trading center rather than a village of primitive huts. It’s doubtful that some of the other criticisms that adhered to Haley’s monumentally influential work will be so easily shaken. But as historian and Haley friend Henry Louis Gates, Jr. put it 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. It was an important event because it captured everyone's imagination.”

Roots premieres on Memorial Day on History.