Roots captivated the nation when it premiered on ABC 45 years ago, drawing somewhere between 130 and 140 million viewers — more than half of the US population (221 million) in 1977.
The groundbreaking miniseries was based on Alex Haley’s bestselling novel, tracking his ancestral history from abducted West African teen Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) through generations of enslaved African Americans and into Reconstruction. Roots ran on eight consecutive nights, starting Jan. 23, 1977 and ending Jan. 30, becoming a must-watch epic event.
That unusual daily release schedule, however, was not some stroke of programming genius by ABC, led at the time by Fred Silverman. In fact, according to Roots stars John Amos and Louis Gossett Jr., the network wanted to unload the entirety of Roots as quickly as possible, fearful of alienating viewers — presumably white viewers — in the American south.
“Their response was to initially want to burn it off,” Amos, who played the adult Kunta Kinte, tells us in a virtual interview this week where he was joined by Gossett. “That is, show every episode over consecutive nights to get rid of it and get it out of the public’s mind, as opposed to realizing the depth of the novel by Alex Haley.”
ABC executives fretted after seeing the brutalities of slavery depicted in the series and merely wanted to fulfill their contractual obligations to Haley, executive producer David L. Wolper and company, Gossett confirms.
“They said, ‘We’re going to lose the south if we do it once a week. Let’s put it all [out there] and get rid of it.’ That’s what Fred said. And he said that in our presence, and to Wolper. ‘Let’s get it on. Because I owe it to you. And let’s get rid of it. Because we’re gonna lose the south if we keep it going.’ That’s what he thought.
“But then you see what happened. The rest is history.”
Indeed, while Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family had already proved a massive success and New York Times No. 1 bestseller, the popularity of the miniseries cemented its story as a cultural touchstone. It encouraged African Americans to trace their own genealogy and triggered wider discourse on race relations. For many white Americans, it opened their eyes to the lasting effects of slavery on all generations of Black Americans who descended from the enslaved.
“It was revelatory on so many levels,” says Amos (Good Times, Coming to America, The West Wing, “Nobody anticipated the response that the world was going to have to Roots at that time.”
Unsurprisingly, it was not an easy shoot for either Amos or Gossett, who played Fiddler, the American-born violinist who takes a young Kunta under his wing with tough love and remains Kunta’s father figure until the moment he dies. “Now you know how it feels to be free, Fiddler,” Amos heart-wrenchingly tells Gossett in their most memorable scene together.
“To make the transition from a contemporary American citizen, living an affluent lifestyle, to portraying a slave with all that encompassed, was not an easy transition,” Amos says. “And you had to make it on a daily basis. So it called for you to do your homework and to never totally dive into yourself of the character, which I did not. The character stayed with me, and to this day I have of flashbacks of Kunta Kinte and what he went through. I only have to see it manifested in today’s latest headline to realize that we still have a ways to go. So that’s the bottom line. It resonated on a daily basis, and it resonates to this day.”
“I was highly sensitive to the fact that I was Black and accorded less respect and less treatment,” says Gossett, who won an Emmy for Roots and an Oscar for the 1982 drama An Officer and a Gentleman, “No matter how many awards that I would win, it still was not in enough in the society I wanted to belong to. I used that very strongly in everything that I did as the first African American that Kunta Kinte saw. And I had to talk myself out of that in order to show him how to survive. It’s one of the things we have to do on a daily basis, and happening less and less these days, but no matter [how many] awards we’ve won, we still got something to prove to society.”
While Roots established itself as the seminal onscreen depiction of American slavery in the 20th century, there have been numerous film and television projects since. The past decade alone has seen the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave (2012), Django Unchained (2012), The Birth of a Nation (2016), Harriet (2019), antebellum (2020), The Underground Railroad (2021) and a 2016 remake of Roots, The recent proliferation of slavery-themed entertainment has drawn some criticism for triggering pain and trauma in the Black community. “I’m sick of this s***,” Snoop Dogg lamented in 2016 as the Roots remake premiered. “Are Harriet and Slavery Films Good for African Americans?” a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar editorial asked in 2019. “How does one fight for ‘No more slave movies ever’ AND ‘Don’t erase our history’ at the same time?” asked Saturday Night Live star Chris Redd on Twitter this month.
Meanwhile, as the culture wars have been stoked anew by conservative critics, some state and local governments are endeavoring to ban books from school libraries and classrooms that deal with race (as well as gender). As the New York Times notes, “No book has been targeted more vigorously than The 1619 Projecta best seller about slavery in America that has drawn wide support among many historians and Black leaders.”
That does not sit well with Amos. “Legislation [being introduced] in our schools now calls for Roots and comparable programming to be eliminated because it embarrasses and offends the white students,” he said. “What are you going to do? You going to tell grandparents, ‘Don’t tell me what it was like when you grew up.’ Are we to silence the oldest members of our community because they lived it? They knew it. As a child, I integrated two schools in New Jersey. So please, are you asking me to forget what it was like? The imbalance of education that I received during those years at those schools that were all white and had to be integrated by law? Am I to forget that? No, that’s very dangerous. We can’t have that. It shouldn’t be tolerable. … Come on now. We can’t start wiping our history.”
Four decades after the premiere of Roots, America underwent a racial reckoning following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. And racial equality and equity remain issues the US still has a long way to go to address. But there’s no doubt the immense impact Roots had in launching a cultural conversation about race and social justice.
,Roots elevated the consciousness of the entire world in regards to the institution of slavery and the ongoing impact that it still has on a global basis,” Amos says. “People still being enslaved to this day. Young women are being forced into bondage on a global basis to the point that it has the United Nations’ attention. These things go on. These are part of mankind’s weakness. So the bottom line is anything that helps to edify and educate another generation in regards to the true institutions of slavery, of the Holocaust and all the other inhumane acts that have been perpetrated. We need to know these things so that they’ll never ever be repeated again, as long as mankind walks the earth.”
Roots is available on digital, Blu-ray, DVD and streaming on HBO Max,