A new ‘Roots’ for a new generation

Neal Justin

No one believes that “Roots,” a new interpretation of Alex Haley’s blockbuster novel airing this week, will get the attention the 1977 version did. Then again, expectations weren’t too high the first time around.

ABC, whose pride and joy at the time was “Happy Days,” was so skeptical of the sprawling history lesson about American slavery that it elected to “burn off” the entire story over eight consecutive nights in January, today’s equivalent of banishing a new show to Saturday evenings.

By the final evening, roughly 85 percent of all TV viewers in the United States had watched at least part of the series — and television executives fully embraced the concept of the miniseries, setting the stage for such blockbusters as “Shogun,” “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War.”

More important, the phenomenon sparked spirited discussion in living rooms across the country, inspiring teenagers to explore black culture and struggles beyond the Evans household on “Good Times.”

Mark Wolper, 16 at the time, had a particularly advantageous seat — his father, David Wolper, was the executive producer and its main champion from Day 1. The two would go on to work together on the 1988 sequel “Roots: The Gift” and 1993’s “Queen,” another miniseries based on a Haley book, this one starring Halle Berry.

Wolper was approached many times, before and after his father’s death in 2010, to take a stab at a remake. He refused.

“Even without the father-son shadow issues, I can’t think of a more daunting, frightening thing to do,” Wolper said by phone last week.

A couple of years ago, he decided it was time for his own 16-year-old son to experience some family history, almost forcing him to sit through all 9 1/2 hours of his grandfather’s most heralded project. Junior wasn’t impressed.

“He couldn’t get into it,” Wolper said. “He said, ‘Dad, I get why it’s important, but it’s a little like your music. It doesn’t speak to me.’ It was at that moment I had this revelation. His generation knows the stories of slavery and even ‘Roots,’ but they haven’t seen it visually in a way that school doesn’t really teach you.”

Traditionalists have the opportunity to see the original when it’s re-released on Blu-ray on June 7. But younger people are likely to be more attracted to this History Channel production with its slightly shorter running time — eight hours stretched over four straight nights that begins Monday — revved-up action and more defiant characters.

Grueling scenes of central character Kunta Kinte training to be a warrior in his West African village could have been lifted from “Survivor.”

Extended scenes from the Revolutionary War, in which slaves were promised freedom in exchange for siding with England, feature a moment in which an African-American soldier emerges from muddy waters like Rambo getting ready to pounce.

Slaves are still whipped and raped in this version, but not before delivering a kick to the master’s groin.

Daina Ramey Berry, a professor of American history at the University of Texas, defended the more rebellious approach.

“In my classroom, students often ask, ‘Why didn’t they just run away?’ Berry said. “As I see it, it’s important to show that African-Americans didn’t just bow down to the oppression.”

The emphasis on fighting back and casting of young, contemporary stars — Anna Paquin, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Mekhi Phifer all make appearances — may inspire a new generation to start examining their genealogical trees.

Berry also hopes the miniseries will help explain the anger still simmering in the country.

“You don’t have to accept the context, but you have to understand it,” she said.

LeVar Burton, who played Kinte in the original series, has no doubt that “Roots” can make a difference again.

“As far as we have come in the area of race relations and the topics of social justice, fairness and equality, we still have a long way to go,” said Burton, who served as an executive producer on the 2016 version. “ ‘Roots’ was, and I believe can be again, an opportunity to do more than simply entertain. It’s an opportunity to educate and enlighten through our storytelling.”

Now if only Wolper can convince his son, now in college, to give it another chance.

“I’d like to have a family screening this summer,” he said. “But unfortunately, he’ll probably watch it on his cellphone in his dorm room.”