Roots was a cultural phenomenon when it aired in 1977, and although the TV miniseries about multiple generations of an African-American family didn’t/couldn’t change Hollywood, its influence is still being felt.
Roots has enjoyed 40 years of cultural currency and become part of pop culture vernacular, where it’s been imitated, name-dropped, alluded-to, ripped-off, paid homage and parodied in everything from Saturday Night Live to The Love Boat, Do the Right Thing! to Tropic Thunder, Murphy Brown to Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa to Family Guy.
As we count down to the revamped miniseries on SBS, here are nine films and TV shows that took inspiration from the mega-success of the original miniseries.
Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss (1978) / Schindler’s List (1993)
In the wake of Roots, another miniseries dealing with a taboo subject, 1978’s Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep and James Woods, caused a similar stir. Like Roots, Holocaust and, later, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List became a springboard for dialogue about a subject that had previously been off-limits. “School students who had never heard anything about the Nazi genocide pressed their teachers to deal with the subject in class,” noted German media theorist Siegfried Zielinski.
Roots: The Next Generations (1979)
Well, obviously this wouldn't exist without Roots. Following the phenomenal success of Roots, the already epic narrative was given a 12-episode sequel, again playing to huge ratings. The story picks up following the American Civil War, after Alex Haley’s slave ancestors have won their freedom. However, African-American life is still wrought with adversity and oppression that includes KKK lynchings and dealing with Jim Crow laws that legalised racial segregation.
The sequel proved even more star-studded, with Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland and James Earl Jones all featuring, while Marlon Brando gives an incredible performance as American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell. Two other sequels were produced - Christmas movie Roots: The Gift aired in 1988 and three-part miniseries Alex Haley's Queen in 1993.
African American Lives (2006) / Ancestors in the Attic (2006) / Who Do You Think You Are? (US) (2010) / Finding Your Roots (2012)
Roots sparked an ancestral boom, with millions inspired to trace their own lineage – a quest for identity through family history. Harvard academic and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr has hosted African American Lives and, more recently, Finding Your Roots. The recent third season of the latter was postponed after it was discovered that actor Ben Affleck had persuaded Gates to omit information about his slave-owning ancestors.
The Australian ’80s miniseries boom
Due to the overwhelming ratings enjoyed by Roots in both the United States and Australia (it’s among the top 10 all-time most watched programs on Australian TV), the miniseries enjoyed a decade in vogue. Australia produced more than 100 miniseries, including East of Eden, The Dismissal, Bodyline, Vietnam, A Town Like Alice and The Great Bookie Robbery.
North and South (1985)
David L Wolper produced Roots and a more trad-telling of the American Civil War, North and South. This miniseries demonstrated several key lessons learnt from Roots. One was the use of famous Hollywood actors in cameo roles to help keep viewers engaged - cue the likes of Gene Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Hal Holbrook and Johnny Cash. A pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley played the outspoken abolitionist Virgilia Hazard, while a pre-Dirty Dancing Patrick Swayze smouldered as doomed Southern officer Orry Main, who proves handy with an umbrella when it comes to snakes.
Roots blended historical fact with African legend, much like 2000’s Adanggaman. This film, however, deals with the complexities of the African slave trade; exploring the complicity of African rulers in supplying human cargo to the Europeans. It was criticised for not featuring any white characters.
Django Unchained (2012)
The influence of Roots is pervasive enough that Quentin Tarantino pitched 2012’s Django Unchained, a post-modern slave spaghetti western, as the anti-Roots.
“When you look at Roots, nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either,” Tarantino told Newsweek. “I didn’t see it when it first came on, but when I did, I couldn’t get over how oversimplified they made everything about that time. It didn’t move me…”
Roots star LeVar Burton came out strongly against Tarantino’s appraisal. “Django Unchained is a fantasy, let’s be clear,” Burton explained to New York magazine. “And when Quentin Tarantino says that Django is more real than Roots, I call bullshit. I got nothing against him, but don’t go there, OK? Don’t go there, Quentin. Too many people who look like me bled and died for you to have the opportunity to satirise the slave narrative. There’s a place for satire in culture. Taken at face value, as a piece of satire, I went and enjoyed it. It was fun. Let’s just not get it twisted. Django was not real.”
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Some have questioned whether Roots should be remade, but it worked for 12 Years a Slave, the Steve McQueen-directed film that won three Academy Awards. The story of Solomon Northup had already been told in 1984’s TV movie, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, but McQueen’s film upped the ante. Dr Emily West, an associate professor of history at the University of Reading who specialises in American slavery, said she had "never seen a film represent slavery so accurately".
Roots premieres on Wednesday 27 July at 8:30pm on SBS and encores on Saturday 30 July, 9.30pm on NITV. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand.
Watch the preview right here: