CANNES — A+E Studios’ “Roots,” the upcoming historical drama miniseries based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, got a warm welcome from international industryites at the opening night of Mip TV. A reimagining of the original 1977 ABC miniseries of the same name, the series charts the journey of a family fighting slavery while witnessing and contributing to notable moments in U.S. history, including the American Revolution and the Civil War. “Roots” was developed and produced by A+E Studios, the company’s recently launched in-house production arm.
The screening was introduced by Sean Cohan, president of A+E Networks’s international and digital media, and followed by an emotional panel moderated by A+E Studio’s exec VP Barry Jossen, with producer Mark Wolper (son of David L. Wolper, the producer of the original miniseries), LeVar Burton, who was the star of the original show and returned as co-exec producer, as well as cast members Anika Noni Rose, Anna Paquin and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
“It’s the perfect time to reimagine ‘Roots.’ It’s important for people to remember that we’re all connected. It’s not just a story about slavery, it’s a story about Americana,” an eloquent Noni Rose said. “Recently there have been lots of slave stories that were very imaginative. But I think that before we start being imaginative about slavery, we should figure out the true story of slavery.”
Burton said the show served an important purpose in telling the young generation about a somber chapter in history. “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat. There’s slavery going on today on this planet as we speak. Unless someone stand up and tells these stories, history will keep repeating itself,” Burton said.
Meyers also talked about the responsibility he had playing the villain of the series, a brutal and cruel slave trader, in the most authentic way. “It was not the easiest role. I didn’t sleep very much during the making of ‘Roots.’ But it’s a (role) that I’m very proud of. In fact I’ve never been as proud,” said Meyers.
Wolper gave a tearful speech talking about the legacy that his father had left him with and the way his father’s “Roots” had changed him. “I was afraid to walk in the footsteps of my father and redo a show that had such an groundbreaking impact,” said Wolper, who then explained how his 16-year-old son inspired him and changed his mind.
“There is a whole new generation who don’t know the story. It’s such an important one because these people existed. That’s real history,” explained Wolper, who added that 16 historians worked on the four episodes.
During his presentation, Cohan said “Roots” was a true passion project, one of the most meaningful in his career. He said the original show had a profound impact on him when he was young and pointed out this new take on the novel was just as universally relevant today.
Taking the stage after Cohan, Bob DeBitetto, who runs A&E’s new studio, said there’s a real desire for great dramatic content such as “Roots.” The exec called “Roots” a labor of love and pointed out the show represented a significant investment for the company and illustrated the early efforts of A&E Studios to work with the best creatives. “I spent more money than the company wanted me to, but no pain, no gain. We had an enormous responsibility to do it right.”
Jossen, who has worked on some of the biggest American shows all of times – from “Sex and the City” to “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds” — talked about the international path of the original “Roots” which started out at MipTV 39 years ago.
“Although Roots was a blockbuster U.S success, the path to its many International records was not so easy,” explained Jossen. Indeed, when the show was first pitched at MipTV in 1977, “The common marketplace belief was that Roots was little more than a popular story for American viewers,” said Jossen. But the following year at MipTV, after “Roots” had premiered to record ratings internationally, the show became the world’s most watched drama and sold in almost every major territory.
“Ancestry. Identity. Hope. These themes made Roots a huge worldwide success,” Jossen concluded.
“Roots” will premiere in the U.S. on History, A&E and Lifetime on May 30.