Tony Norman: Revisiting ‘Roots’ might just be an epic folly

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A few days ago, I found out that a reboot of the miniseries “Roots” was in the works.

This comes 37 years after that bitterly cold January in 1977, when nearly half of the nation’s televisions were tuned for eight nights to a searing depiction of one family’s ordeal in slavery, from the Middle Passage to freedom in post-Civil War Tennessee.

Though billed as a true story, it was eventually established that author Alex Haley, upon whose 1976 best seller the series was based, had been less than scrupulous about his family history. There were also charges from historians and researchers that much of the book, though based on the oppressive reality of American slavery, was fiction.

Mr. Haley was also accused of lifting whole passages for “Roots” from the work of other writers. Historian Harold Courlander was especially angry about seeing his work grafted into Mr. Haley’s narrative without acknowledgment or compensation.

Though Mr. Haley denied he was a plagiarist even as evidence mounted against him in that pre-Internet era, he was compelled by the conditions of an out-of-court settlement to admit he “borrowed” passages from Mr. Courlander’s 1967 book, “The Africans.” It was an admission that Mr. Courlander could take to the bank — and did.

Though the historical provenance of Mr. Haley’s “Roots” is sketchy, the book and miniseries succeeded in spurring an interest in genealogy and family history, especially in the black community. Suddenly, ordinary people who rarely acknowledged the legacy of slavery discovered that they were descended from extraordinary people who survived the worst things this country could throw at them.

The series also employed the largest and most prestigious African-American cast in Hollywood history to that point. As a 16-year-old watching “Roots” in my West Philly bedroom, I was amazed to see so many black faces on a television screen at one time. We’re obviously used to black folks on TV now in this era of BET, but at the time it was unprecedented.

“Roots” introduced LeVar Burton to the public and cemented the reputations of Ben Vereen and Louis Gossett Jr. as criminally under-utilized stars. If you were black in Hollywood in the mid-1970s and couldn’t finagle a bit part in “Roots,” then you didn’t exist. Everyone from Scatman Crothers and Richard Roundtree to Maya Angelou and O.J. Simpson had face time in “Roots,” even if only for a minute.

One of the reasons given for rebooting “Roots” for a new generation — many of whom get their history from television and movies — is the recent box office success of “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained.” Like the original “Roots,” the reboot would be a slick way for Hollywood to finally use the African-American actors it has gone to the trouble to lavish with awards — but not necessarily roles — in recent years.

Any planned reboot of “Roots” would presumably have to feature Gabourey Sidibe, Octavia Spencer, Mo’Nique, Viola Davis and Barkhad Abdi. The producers would fall over themselves trying to get Lupita Nyong’o for the role originally played by Leslie Uggams. Michael B. Jordan could get LeVar Burton’s role as Kunte Kinte.

Of course, the very idea of a reboot of such an iconic, but problematic, series speaks volumes about the industry’s paucity of imagination. Still, “Roots” was once a genuine cultural juggernaut that made a lot of money for a lot of people.

So it isn’t surprising that slavery is a subject Hollywood feels it “understands” on an intuitive level. Studios are more comfortable rehashing familiar dramas about black degradation and white supremacy than taking a chance on riskier, more relevant source material.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if instead of revisiting “Roots,” the History Channel announced that it would do a documentary spread over eight nights based on one of the most important books of the last 25 years — Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness”?

Or how about a movie based on Evelyn Kakano Glenn’s “Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor”? Judging by all of his fake fans in the Tea Party, America is more than ready for a movie about that old black Republican Frederick Douglass based on his many autobiographies.

But to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in one of his most memorable roles, “Hollywood can’t handle the truth.” Get ready for a second helping of “Roots.”


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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