For eight nights in late January of 1977, more than tens of millions of people in the United States tuned in to watch a miniseries about the history of slavery in America adapted from Alex Haley’s novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” Forty years later, that television event—“Roots”—still stands as one of the most-watched programs in history. To many, it is considered a cultural benchmark in our country’s evolving conversation about diversity. Putting down another marker four decades later was a delicate undertaking, but for Mark Wolper, the son of “Roots” producer David Wolper, this is part of the American story that needs to remain in the fore.
Mark’s miniseries remake, starring Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne, Jonthan Rhys Meyers, Anika Noni Rose and T.I., and newcomer Malachi Kirby as Kunte Kinte, aired on the History Channel and A&E last spring to critical acclaim. It will re-air on Feb. 12-13 on the History Channel. And while it afforded new viewers the opportunity to better understand the importance of the original piece, it also forced consideration of how poorly stories about this part of history have been relayed in American culture.
On Feb. 1, in honor of the anniversary, Drexel University’s Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies and the University’s Center for Cultural Partnerships are hosting Wolper as part of a panel discussion at The African American Museum of Philadelphia. The event will include a screening of the first episode of the series and a discussion with Wolper and Daina Ramey Berry, the series historical consultant, moderated by Jonathan Capehart, a columnist for The Washington Post and MSNBC contributor.
Wolper recently gave the News Blog some insight on the production and lasting effects of his and his father’s films.
How did the 1977 miniseries signal a cultural shift in the viewing audience? (The final episode still has the third-highest Nielsen rating of all-time).
ABC network was convinced that a show where “blacks are the good guys and whites are the bad guys” would fail miserably in the U.S. As a result, that changed the planned airdate of the show during the advertising critical “sweeps” period to the “moth ball” time of January. It was also planned to be an ongoing weekly series, but they decided to bury it all in one week.
America proved them wrong about the audience and also proved that a miniseries is a powerful and attention-getting event. From that point on, all miniseries episodes aired in the same week and it put production of more minisiers high on networks priority list. Oddly enough however, contrary to common sense, the growth of powerful and good roles for African Americans did not improve.
How important is it for a story like this to be refreshed after 40 years, for a new audience? What aspects of a remake allow it to resonate with a new audience that might not have seen the original?
I inherited the rights to “Roots.” For many, many, many years I resisted doing a remake of the story. It was just to scary to take on one of the most iconic TV shows of all time, in the shadow of my father, during one of the most racially charged times in American history. It was not until five years ago, that I forced my 16-year-old son to watch the original. He would not sit still—it did not catch him. When it was over (and I released my grip on him) he said “I get why this is a really important story to tell dad, but it is like your music, it does not speak to me.” It was in that moment that I realized the reason we need to do it again.
It is American history. It is about family, identity. These are the stories that we have to tell over and over again so that we don’t forget. No young Americans are going to go back to watch the original “Roots.” We must refresh, update, and retell for an entire new generation of people that have not seen it.
What are the responsibilities you feel in the creation of an important program like this, that tells the story of the grimmest parts of American history? And as a white man, telling the story of slavery in America?
If we don’t understand our history, how can we comprehend the present and fix the future? Lessons are embedded in the stories of the people that preceded us. We have to learn from their journeys, mistakes and triumphs. Alex Haley told an amazing and dramatic true story in a novel. The weapon to cause change that I posses is my ability to create and sell TV shows. These TV shows reach millions of people. I have a moral obligation to fight for what I believe—using my weapon.
Since the original “Roots” was written, and as a result of that success of that novel and the first miniseries, thousands of studies have been done about Kunte Kinte, The Gambia, his village, the slave trade, early America. We were able to take all that new information—that Alex Haley did not have—and adapt the story to be more honest, accurate and detailed. In addition, and as a result of changed TV mores, we were able to represent the brutality of the time more honestly.
You’ve been lauded for your faithfulness to the original story, what were some of the big decisions you had to make and challenges you faced in the re-telling of “Roots” after 40 years?
We could be more honest about the brutality, we could correct errors in the original story telling, we could drop more information than the original. But, we also had the opportunity to tell stories that were not in the original miniseries but were in the book. We even told stories that were historically accurate that did not appear in either source.
It has recently been suggested that our vehicles for consuming media are contributing to a growing national divide, when in the past, mass media was a uniting force—some 90 million people tuned in at once to see the finale of Roots in 1977. Despite the disparate way we watch, can compelling content — like a “Roots” remake — still have the cultural gravity to unite an audience?
Times have changed. TV has changed. Audiences do not consume media in the same way that they did. They have more control of how they view it. It may not happen on the filmmaker’s schedule, on his/her planned platform, or be viewed all at the same time or in a small span of time, but the flexibility and the technology allow a global experience on many platforms in many time zones and across broader periods of time.
The truth remains! If the material resonates it will find an audience, if it finds an audience and it is provocative it can have cultural gravity. Nations are changing because of media. As a content provider I have to create material that resonates. “If you build it they will come!”
The Roots at 40 event will be held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1 at The African American Museum of Philadelphia. It is free and open to the public. A reception will follow the event.
For more information visit: http://www.aampmuseum.org/
Or to RSVP: ROOTSAT40PHILLY@EVENTBRITE.COM.
For media inquiries contact Britt Faulstick, assistant director, media relations, Drexel University, firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-895-2617.