• Levar Burton as Kunta Kinte chained with other slaves. (Warner Bros.)Source: Warner Bros.
Roots is being remade for a new generation, but how much do you know about this cultural phenomenon?
By
Christopher Hollow

7 Jul 2016 - 3:20 PM  UPDATED 7 Jul 2016 - 3:20 PM

Originally airing in 1977, Roots was an instant hit, and is still one of the most-watched TV shows of all time. The miniseries forced America to confront the brutal reality of slavery and the wounds it had left on the nation. Here are 20 facts that celebrate the legacy of Roots...

 

1) Dave Chappelle did a hilarious Roots parody

“Kunta Kinte, behold the only thing greater than yourself,” says Omoro, an African Mandinka father, holding his infant son toward the starry sky as he bestows a name. This gesture is paid homage at the beginning of The Lion King, when Rifiki, a baboon-shaman, lifts the cub Simba to the heavens. On Chappelle's Show, Dave Chappelle served up Roots outtakes, including the baby peeing on its father's head when held aloft.

 

2) Roots was an immediate print sensation 

Published in October 1976, Roots: The Saga of an American Family was an immediate sensation, spending 22 weeks atop The New York Times Best Seller list. The book was listed as non-fiction, and author Alex Haley earnt a Pulitzer Prize special award and a National Book Award.

 

3) Author Alex Haley was labelled a plagiarist

Shortly after publication, Haley was accused of plagiarism and was eventually forced to acknowledge a large part of Roots was lifted from Harold Courlander’s 1967 novel, The African. Courlander received an out-of-court settlement of around $600,000.

 

4) Some of the non-fiction was actually fiction

Other scholars made arguments that the Gambian village of Juffure, which Roots describes as Kunta Kinte’s idyllic isolated all-black community, was likely a slave-trading hub, through which slaves from all over West Africa passed on their way to the new world. When Haley’s facts were challenged, the author, who died in 1992, began calling his work “faction” and “symbolic history”. The controversies did little damage to book sales and plans for a television adaptation.

 

5) Fears the miniseries would be an expensive flop shaped the way it was presented

The writers created a slave captain with a conscience, played by Ed Asner, a character who didn’t appear in Haley's novel but was intended to make white audiences feel better about their historical role in the slave trade. Asner won an Emmy Award for his performance.

 

6) The cast was packed with familiar faces

To further reassure audiences, Roots was filled with actors known for playing other iconic TV roles. These included Ralph Waite (The Waltons), Sandy Duncan (The Sandy Duncan Show), Chuck Connors (The Rifleman/Thrillseekers) and Lorne Greene (Bonanza). You could also view Mrs Addams (Carolyn Jones, Addams Family), Mrs Munster (Yvonne DeCarlo, The Munsters) and Mr Brady (Robert Reed, The Brady Bunch) in roles that went against type.

 

7) Hip-hop stars have paid tribute to Kunta Kinte

Actor LeVar Burton became an overnight star with his dignified portrayal of Alex Haley’s ancestor, Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte, who is name-checked by Missy Elliott in "Work It", and also in Kanye West’s "Never Let Me Down" and Kendrick Lamar’s "King Kunta". Burton later starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation and portrayed Martin Luther King Jr in the 2001 film Ali.

 

8) Cicely Tyson was in Roots

Cicely Tyson, a former Ebony magazine model, earnt an Emmy nomination for her role as Binta, mother to Kunte Kinte, in Roots. Jazz fans will know her as the face of ex-husband Miles Davis’s 1967 LP, Sorcerer.

 

9) OJ Simpson was in Roots 

Despite still being in the midst of his illustrious NFL career, American footballer OJ Simpson had his first breakout role as a West African native called Kadi Touray. 

 

10) Some of the casting was a bit iffy

Actor Georg Stanford Brown played Tom Harvey, the son of Kizzy (Leslie Uggams) and "Chicken" George (Ben Vereen). In real life, the three actors were all born within three years of each other, Stanford Brown and Uggams in 1943, Vereen in ’46. It meant that “Tom”, the son, was actually three years older than his “father”, "Chicken" George, and mother “Kizzy” was three years older than her “son”.

 

11) 85 percent of Americans watched Roots

Against all expectations, Roots was a rating smash, setting a myriad records. Eighty-five percent of all American TV homes saw all or part of the miniseries. The final episode was watched by more than 100 million viewers and it remains the third most-watched single episode of all time, trailing only the final episode of M*A*S*H and the iconic “Who Shot JR?” episode of Dallas.

 

12) Roots was on the cover of Time

In a cover story (Why Roots Hits Home), Time magazine reported that restaurant and shop owners saw profits decline when Roots was on the air. The feature noted that bartenders were only able to keep customers by neglecting basketball and hockey, and tuning into Roots.

 

13) Roots broke records in Australia, too

The miniseries, which premiered on Network Ten in April 1977, is among the top 10 all-time most-watched programs on Australian TV – rating higher than 1969’s moon landing, which was shown simultaneously across all channels.

 

14) Roots even affected the naming of children

Such was the impact of Roots, the top new baby names in America in 1977 were Levar (after actor LeVar Burton) and Kizzy, the daughter of Kunta Kinte. Kizzy is still the biggest debut of a baby name ever in the US. Kunta was also in the top baby names of ’77, while other character names – Fanta, Jitu, Kairaba, Lamin, Omoro and Yaisa – also featured. Meanwhile, Toby, the name given to Kunta Kinte by a plantation owner, declined dramatically in use, dropping off by more than 50% in the wake of the show.

 

15) Roots basically invented the miniseries 

In the wake of Roots, the miniseries was heavily scheduled and promoted as a special television event. It was also seen as an important counter to the lure of the VCR. Between 1978 and 1987, Australia produced more than 100 miniseries including The Dismissal, Bodyline, Vietnam, A Town Like Alice and The Great Bookie Robbery.

 

16) Roots is still a social phenomenon

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 from Saturday Night Live to The Love Boat, Tropic Thunder to Curb Your Enthusiasm, Do the Right Thing!, Murphy Brown, Misery, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, The Simpsons and Family Guy.

 

17) Naturally, there's a porn version

Not to be outdone, the porn industry released its own take on the Roots phenomenon for a new generation in 2011: Can’t Be Roots XXX Parody: The Untold Story. "It's made pro-black; it's not pro-white," director TT Boy explained at the time. "It has comedy in it. It's something like one of the Dave Chappelle Roots [skits]. The slaves f*** all the white girls, the daughters and the wives of the masters. It's wild."

 

18) Quincy Jones did the soundtrack

Music legend Quincy Jones produced, arranged and won an Emmy Award for the Roots soundtrack. The centrepiece, "Roots Mural Theme", is not by Q, however, but film composer Gerald Fried. The song has been sampled multiple times by the likes of Juelz Santana in 2005 on "Mic Check", 2003’s "Something for All That" by Big Noyd featuring Prodigy and Def Jam’s 1991 hit "Soul Is Back". Fittingly, Questlove, from The Roots, is the executive music producer for the new series.

 

19) Roots has been reimagined

Hollywood veterans Laurence Fishburne and Forest Whitaker head the cast of the upcoming reimagining of Roots. Fishburne plays Alex Haley while Whitaker takes on the role of Fiddler, for which Louis Gossett Jr won an Emmy in the original. Malachi Kirby (EastEnders/Doctor Who) is the new Kunte Kinte.

 

20) The new Roots has a local connection

The new series of Roots will also showcase the directorial talents of Australians Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant/Driving Miss Daisy) and Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm/Rabbit-Proof Fence). New Zealand’s Anna Paquin (True Blood/The Piano) will play Nancy Holt, the wife of a Confederate officer who has her own agenda when it comes to the handling of slaves. 

 

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:

VISIT THE ROOTS HOMEPAGE

Who’s who in the Roots universe
A quick run-down of seven characters who may have faded in your historical memory.
Five things that HAVEN'T changed in race relations since Roots aired in 1977 plus five that have
Can the re-imagining of Roots change the world all over again?
Why the Roots remake is so important
The new version of the 1977 classic miniseries is the rare work that focuses on slavery from the perspective of the enslaved.