Back in '77, there was no HBO, Hulu or iTunes. When it came to your television-watching possibilities, you were pretty much a captive of network TV. (And, perhaps, on a good night, PBS.) But even with limited viewing options back then, Alex Haley's Roots wasn't just must-see TV; it was we-all-watched TV, with more than 100 million Americans tuning in for the finale, making it one of the highest-rated TV shows. Ever. It's hard to overstate the impact of Haley's eight-night, sprawling slave saga. A nation tuned in, and a nation was changed.
Shortly after the show aired, I was walking through the halls of my very Southern prep school when a white classmate sheepishly approached me. She wanted to apologize for slavery. "For the first time in my life," she said, "I am ashamed of being white." Which is to say, for the first time in her life, she'd realized, really realized, that maybe, just maybe, slavery wasn't a good thing. Um, OK. But for a scion of the Old South, attending a school where some of the teachers still bemoaned the unfortunate outcome of the Civil War, speaking derisively of "up North," this was a pretty big admission.
Roots, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this week, took slavery from the schoolbooks and onto the little screen, rendering it real. Yes, Haley's 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, upon which the TV show was based, was a big best-seller. But television is a visceral medium. It's one thing to read about Kunta Kinte being beaten for refusing to accept his "slave name," Toby. But it's quite another thing to see it, to watch LeVar Burton/Kunta Kinte enduring every whiplash, to witness his pain. Knowing that Kunta Kinte really lived, that he was one of Haley's great-great-greats, gave the series an extra pop of potency.
It didn't hurt, of course, that the show boasted a who's who of black and white talent circa 1977. Network execs were terrified that the show would flop, so they filled it with big names: Quincy Jones did the score, and then there was Cicely Tyson, John Amos, Lloyd Bridges, Edward Asner, Sandy Duncan, Lou Gossett Jr., Robert Reed, George Hamilton (!), Richard Roundtree, Leslie Uggams as Kizzy and Ben Vereen as Chicken George. Even O.J. Simpson got in on the act, straining credulity by playing a West African native in Kunta Kinte's idyllic village.
It was thought that the series would finally cure the paltry and often problematic representation of blacks on television. Thirty-five years later, notwithstanding Hollywood powerhouses like Shonda Rhimes, it's still fairly rare to find a TV show centered around the lives of black folks. (Time will tell if Don Cheadle's House of Lies and Rhimes' upcoming drama, Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, will make a change.)
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.