• The 1977 airing of Roots brought race relations to the fore of discussion in the States - but has anything really changed? (ABC America)Source: ABC America
Can the re-imagining of Roots change the world all over again?
By
Christopher Hollow

3 Jun 2016 - 1:29 PM  UPDATED 4 Jul 2016 - 3:30 PM

Yes, it was a runaway ratings success in America and Australia when it aired in the late '70s, but the impact of Roots went beyond bums on seats. The miniseries served as a confronting history lesson in a post-civil rights movement world, and helped change perceptions and attitudes. There's still plenty of work to be done in that respect, but global race relations have come a long way since 1977.

 

THINGS THAT HAVEN'T CHANGED:

Racist ads

Just last month, Chinese detergent maker Qiaobi stopped the internet with a "jaw-droppingly" racist ad.

 

#BlackLivesMatter

The hashtag has become a rallying cry at demonstrations and a powerful activist movement calling for racial justice. #BlackLivesMatter was inspired by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman recently sold the pistol for a quarter of a million dollars.

In the new retelling of Roots, there’s a scene where a young black man attempts to escape a plantation. White slave bosses shoot him in the back.

“I don’t think I need to say how relevant that is to right now," Malachi Kirby, the actor who plays Kunta Kinte in the new series, recently told The Daily Beast. “These things happened. And they’re happening today.”

 

The Confederate battle flag

The days of the Confederate battle flag could well be numbered - it was recently taken down from the South Carolina statehouse following a racially motivated church massacre. It still flies, however, as the Mississippi state flag.

Also, in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, vehicle owners can request a state-issued licence plate featuring the Sons of Confederate Veterans logo, which incorporates the square Confederate battle flag.

 

#OscarsSoWhite

Despite the original Roots miniseries being so successful, many of the actors found it tough to find regular roles. The lack of diversity being represented - and rewarded - on film was the biggest story of the 2016 Academy Awards. In its 88-year history, a mere 14 black actors have won Oscars, while only five Latino actors, three of Asian descent and one Indigenous actor (Irish-Cherokee star Ben Johnson for The Last Picture Show in 1972) have been awarded gongs.

 

Racist public transport rants

 

THINGS THAT HAVE CHANGED:

A black American president

In 1977, the idea of a black US President was still the stuff of science fiction. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African-American to hold office.

 

South African apartheid

The South African apartheid government, still reeling from the 1976 Soweto uprising, believed the TV version of Roots too inflammatory to screen. The children’s novel, Black Beauty, was also banned. The US Embassy did special screenings, but only a very small percentage of people actually saw the show. Apartheid was eventually dismantled in 1994 and, this time around, the reimagining of Roots is being screened.

 

Harriet Tubman and the American $20 note

This year, the US Treasury Secretary announced that the new $20 notes will feature abolitionist and humanitarian Harriet Tubman on the front, symbolically replacing former president and slave owner Andrew Jackson (who’s been moved to the back). Born into slavery in Maryland, Tubman escaped then risked her life to save many more from slavery through a series of safe houses and archivists known as the Underground Railroad. Once a far-fetched dream to have an African-American woman celebrated in such a way, it’s seen as a significant, if long overdue, step forward for the US. 

 

Waleed Aly wins the 2016 Gold Logie

 

Racism in sport

In 1993, St Kilda AFL footballer Nicky Winmar was racially vilified by Collingwood supporters. After the final siren, Winmar lifted his jumper, pointed to his skin and declared, "I’m black and I’m proud to be black". Collingwood’s then president, Allan McAlister, commented that Winmar and teammate Gilbert McAdam would be respected "as long as they conducted themselves like white people on and off the field”.

Or maybe not...

In 2015, Adam Goodes, two-time premiership player, two-times Brownlow medallist, was booed out of the game. 

 

 

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

More from Roots
Literally every actor you know is in the new Roots
A panoply of stars comes to the Roots remake on SBS.
The new Roots is more scathing and pulls fewer punches
Passionate, sweeping, angry, unforgiving, the show is disgusted by the physical and moral atrocities it depicts.
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.