The audience was silent Monday night at Lincoln Center as the credits rolled on the first episode of “Roots,” the newly rebooted A+E miniseries based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel. The new project reimagines ABC’s 1977 version, one of the highest-rated shows in television history, and like its predecessor spares no horrors in following Kunta Kinte’s descendants through decades of American slavery from Colonial times to Reconstruction.
Executives, producers and cast members were all smiles at Monday night’s posh Manhattan screening, but those closest to the project confessed they were initially skeptical it should happen — a sentiment expressed by original cast members Cicely Tyson and John Amos.
“I was adamant I was never going to produce it or ever touch this again,” executive producer Mark Wolper told Variety. Wolper inherited the rights to the project from his father, David Wolper, who produced the 1977 version.
“It was too frightening (for political reasons and where we are in the world today); it was frightening in terms of the success of the original ‘Roots’; and it was frightening doing it in the shadow of Daddy,” Wolper said.
But speaking with his teenage son, Wolper realized the original series didn’t resonate with viewers under 35. So, the producer set out to update the story to entertain the toughest critics – millennials.
“It had to be an action-adventure, and the story of a hero rising, the whole Kunta Kinte family. It has to be authentic because my 16-year old-boy can smell when something is not authentic,” Wolper said.
Incorporating more historical details, the A+E production features a saturated tableau of love stories, violent gun-battles, graphic scenes of abuse, alongside quick and suspense-building cuts.
“There is an obligation now to translate it to today, and hopefully 30 years from now someone will do it again,” Wolper said.
Co-executive producer LeVar Burton, who played the young Kunta Kinte in the original, was also unsure if there should be a remake.
“I wasn’t convinced it was such a good idea, but once I heard Mark Wolper’s story, I was on board,” Burton said. “I wanted to share with this new generation the truth that they don’t come from slaves, they come from a people who were enslaved. Their DNA is the best that the African continent had to offer.”
Burton said that he believes the current political landscape makes this project especially relevant in 2016.
“We are not in a post-racial America,” Burton said. “America is very much about race. Everything that happens in this country and this culture is somehow related to our past, and unless we heal the past now in the present, we will only continue to be hamstrung in the future.”
Anika Noni Rose, who plays Kizzy, Kinte’s daughter, had to be convinced to take the part. Before auditioning, she asked the producers to explain their motivation in making the new series.
“This is not pop culture; this is our heritage as Americans,” Rose expressed. “I hope that people look at it and they see that the things we take for granted, still, everyone does not have.”
Rose furthered her point by stating that the human rights battles depicted in the series still resonate hundreds of years later.
“The fight that these people were fighting, to be treating in a humane fashion, is the fight we are still fighting for Freddie Gray,” Rose said. “It is the fight that we are still fighting for the child of the immigrant whose parents are being shipped away. It is a fight that is continual and we have to be able to look at it with fresh, clear, new eyes, to be able to listen to what these people are crying for, asking for, demanding, and fighting for.”
“Roots” premieres in the U.S. in a simulcast on History, A&E and Lifetime on May 30.