Quite simply, the world changed. It’s hard to believe today, in the multiculti, hip-hop-flavored, Benetton universe we now share, but before Alex Haley’s miniseries Roots: The Saga of an American Family aired on ABC most of white society had no idea how to relate to the millions of black citizens who lived alongside them. Over the course of eight consecutive nights, the country sat enraptured by the story of Kunta Kinte, a young West African warrior (and Haley ancestor) kidnapped from his tribe and sold into slavery, and his enduring struggle for freedom. For many black Americans, it was a revelation, a peek into a past they all shared but either never fully realized or never truly acknowledged. For white America, it pulled back the curtain on one of the longest, darkest periods in human history, one that many had conveniently chosen to forget. After ”Roots,” we were one step closer to bringing those two Americas together.
For ”Roots”’ 25th anniversary, Warner is releasing all 12 hours in a three-disc set, and watching it today, with different eyes, it’s easy to see why almost half the country tuned in to see the finale. Produced by TV vet David L. Wolper, ”Roots” was a bold experiment, littered with violence, nudity, and more uses of the word nigger than any rap album, and the cast — led by John Amos, then newcomer LeVar Burton, Louis Gossett Jr., Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, Madge Sinclair, Edward Asner, Richard Roundtree, Cicely Tyson, and Robert Reed — was larger and blacker than in any network program before it. But the story (which Haley freely admitted was a work of ”faction”) loses steam once Kunta Kinte (played first by Burton, then by Amos) leaves the stage, while the commentary tracks, by an impressive portion of the cast and creative team, isn’t nearly as illuminating as a modern scholar would hope.
Nevertheless, ”Roots” remains a landmark not only for television but for society. Buy this set. Watch it. Show your children. Answer their questions. Be honest. Yes, parts of ”Roots” are painful, but pain is the price of memory, and if this miniseries has taught us anything, it’s that we are doomed if we don’t remember.