Forty-five years ago, big-name Black actors like John Amos, Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, Maya Angelou, Ernest Lee Thomas, Richard Roundtree, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs and LeVar Burton all starred in the revolutionary ABC mini-series “Roots.”
The predominantly Black cast participated in an eight consecutive-nights television viewing event that brought in over 130 million viewers, more than half of the nation’s population at the time.
However, in 1977, America’s biggest network was unsure that putting the nation’s ugliest sin on the small screen was a wise decision. The suits didn’t know if the country was ready to talk about race and slavery. Now, with the nation grappling with the manufactured controversy of critical race theory being taught in K-12 schools — conservatives’ claims notwithstanding, this graduate school discipline is not part of history curricula below the college level — many are questioning if they are ready now.
Amos and Gossett Jr. said in an interview this week with Yahoo! Entertainment that despite the success of the project, the suits in charge of programming were nervous about alienating viewers from the South only a little over a decade removed from segregation.
This is the reason why for a week and one day, Fred Silverman, the man in charge of the network’s programming, decided to play the eight episodes one night after the other.
“Their response was to initially want to burn it off,” Amos reflected. “That is, show every episode over consecutive nights to get rid of it and get it out of the public’s mind, as opposed to realizing the depth of the novel by Alex Haley. The book had been a bestseller. A sensation around the planet and the more literate minds in the industry thought it would be wonderful television programming. But nobody anticipated the response the world was going to have to ‘Roots’ at that time.”
The actor, who starred in the show as the adult Kunta Kinte, was backed up by his on-screen mentor.
Gossett, who played Fiddler, also remembered ABC executives being worried that America wasn’t ready for slavery on TV. They also wanted to fulfill their contractual obligation to Alex Haley, whose novel the story was based on, producer David L. Wolper, and his company.
Gossett noted, “They said, ‘We’re going to lose the South if we do it once a week. Let’s put it all [out there] and get rid of it.’ That’s what Fred said. And he said that in our presence, and to Wolper. ‘Let’s get it on. Because I owe it to you. And let’s get rid of it. Because we’re gonna lose the South if we keep it going.’ That’s what he thought.”
However, the country proved to be more ready than the television wizards anticipated, and “Roots” became one of the most successful shows of its time.
Vulture reported in 2016 that up until its debut, “Roots” was the top-rated production ever made or aired on the medium of television. Nielsen’s measurements found the mini-series attracted 51.1 percent of all Americans to tune in, beating out even the Super Bowl game between the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings that happened around the same time that year.
In the Vulture article, Amos said Uggams, who played Kunte Kinte’s daughter Kizzy, was booked to perform in Las Vegas during the week “Roots” aired on ABC. She told him that the show was so popular that it “shut the casinos down. People left the gaming tables to go to their rooms to watch ‘Roots.’”
In 2016, a reboot was made with another star-studded cast. Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Anika Noni Rose, and Derek Luke joined the cast to continue the story. Like the original, it had a robust opening and garnered mind-boggling views.
It aired during the Memorial Weekend holiday and ran on a four-night run on the History, A&E, and Lifetime networks and brought in an average 5.3 million viewers across each platform, making it at the time the most-watched cable miniseries opener since “The Bible” in 2013, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Despite those numbers just six years ago, Amos said he is not sure if “Roots” would be as successful if it were to debut in 2022 because the world has been so “inundated with tragedies and horrors it would just stand in line with the rest of the offerings of Hollywood.”
Others like Snoop Dogg and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are just tired of content around slavery. With the recent critical race theory argument, these cultural critics might get what they want.
A book like Alex Haley’s “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” falls into the type of storylines that politicians, particularly Southern Republicans, are working to have pulled from school libraries and classrooms.
Amos called the anti-CRT movement is an “imbalance of education” and a call for people Americans to stop the erasure of history.
“Legislation [being introduced] in our schools now calls for ‘Roots’ and comparable programming to be eliminated because it embarrasses and offends the white students,” he said to Yahoo! Entertainment.
“What are you going to do? You going to tell grandparents, ‘Don’t tell me what it was like when you grew up.’ Are we to silence the oldest members of our community because they lived it? They knew it. As a child, I integrated two schools in New Jersey,” he continued. “So, please, are you asking me to forget what it was like? The imbalance of education that I received during those years at those schools that were all white and had to be integrated by law? Am I to forget that? No, that’s very dangerous.”
Amos said that people cannot tolerate that. “We can’t start wiping our history.”
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