‘Roots’: More Than Just a Miniseries

Thirty-five years later, the slavery epic's influence is everywhere.

LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte
LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte

Roots provided one of those rare sit-up-and-wake-up moments in American culture. After the show, hundreds of schools used the series as a history lesson. Whites like my classmate used it as an eye-opening exercise. And black folks, inspired by Haley’s exploration of his familial roots, started tracing their family trees, too, flocking to the continent in droves to discover from whence they came, crowding the slave castle at Senegal’s Goree Island, coming back changed. To this day, every year folks still flock to the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival in Annapolis, Md., where the real Kunta Kinte landed in 1767.

This was the show that spawned an endless crop of consecutive-night miniseries. The next year, network TV would air Holocaust, a four-night epic about — you guessed it — a Jewish family in Nazi Germany, starring Meryl Streep, Timothy Bottoms and James Woods. This was also the show that spawned countless parodies.

Time has a way of obliterating earnestness — especially once the downtrodden slave became a Hollywood trope. With 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend sent up the whole slave-movie narrative with his “Black Acting School,” featuring a befuddled butler who wants to know why the other slaves are running away when “Massa” treats them all so well: “He been good to us. He feeds us on Saturday, clothes us on Sunday and beats us on Monday.”

On Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle served up “outtakes” of Roots, including the baby peeing on her father’s head as she’s held aloft to the heavens — “Behold! The only thing greater than yourself!” — in that iconic naming ceremony. Tobi on Family Guy took it on, merging the famous beating scene with O.J.’s real-life, slo-mo cop chase.

Last year the porn industry released its own version: Can’t Be Roots XXX Parody: The Untold Story. “It’s made pro-black; it’s not pro-white,” director TT Boy said. “It has comedy in it. It’s something like one of the Dave Chappelle Roots [skits]. The slaves f— all the white girls, the daughters and the wives of the masters. It’s wild.”

Thirty-five years after ABC launched the series, we’re still fighting the same battles with entertainment executives. In the past couple of weeks, director George Lucas, who produced Red Tails, the docudrama about the Tuskegee Airmen, went public about his difficulties getting distribution for the movie because it didn’t feature any white stars. “One studio’s executives didn’t even show up for the screening,” according to the New York Times.

“Isn’t this their job?” Lucas told the Times. “Isn’t their job at least to see movies? It’s not like some Sundance kid coming in there and saying, ‘I’ve got this little movie — would you see it?’ If Steven [Spielberg] or I or Jim Cameron or Bob Zemeckis comes in there and they say, ‘We don’t even want to bother to see it … ‘ ” Unfortunately, the more things change, the more Hollywood stays the same.

Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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