History is of course bringing back the miniseries Roots, starting May 30, and the question for many is, why? The original, from 1977, made TV history and remained embedded in the consciousness of many of the 36 million who watched the finale.
Is there any way a remake can possibly be deemed a success?
These are questions Mark Wolper, son of Roots producer David Wolper, wrestled with before taking on the slavery saga and ultimately decided he and his production partners could make a compelling—and, perhaps, better—version of Roots. The new one hews closer to the book, authored by Alex Haley, which spawned the TV movie, and avails itself of the historical insights gleaned across the 39 years since Roots debuted.
Technology has gotten a heckuva lot better too, says Wolper. “Roots was the best it could be in 1977. This Roots is absolutely the best it can be in 2016,” he says. “If we were going to do this, we decided it absolutely has to be better than the last one.”
The four-night event will air simultaneously on History, A&E and Lifetime.
Producing legend David Wolper died in 2010. His vast TV resume also included Welcome Back Kotter, the famed miniseries The Thorn Birds and North and South and countless movies.
Part of Wolper’s motivation came when he sat to watch ABC’s original with his 16-year old son—approximately how old Wolper was when the miniseries aired in ’77. His kid thought the production looked date. “It’s like your music,” Wolper says, imitating his son. “It doesn’t speak to me.”
Wolper met with several principals from the original Roots to get their thoughts on a remake. He won’t share names but says they were cast members, producers and network executives. “It weighed heavily on my conscious—what my father would’ve thought,” he says.
Not all were in favor of giving it a go, but most where. And the continued relevance of the race issue in America compelled Wolper to tackle the project. “We cannot understand today or fix tomorrow without understanding how we got here,” he says.
Wolper describes the Roots budget as “really f***ing high”—comparable to “the extreme high end” of what a cable drama pilot costs. (He won’t give a specific number.) “The support of the studio, both financial and creative, is not like anything I’ve had in my 32 years in the business,” said Wolper.
Paul Buccieri, president of A&E and History, came on board at the networks after the project was in the works. He says it’s “probably one of the network’s biggest undertakings.”
A+E Studios produced the eight-hour series, in association with Marc Toberoff and The Wolper Organization. The cast includes Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. LeVar Burton, who famously played Kunta Kinte in the original, is a producer on the new version. Directors include Phillip Noyce, Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter and Bruce Beresford.
To capture the full intensity of the story, including the violence and language, Wolper says, Roots could not have worked on broadcast TV. The History network’s focus made it an obvious choice.
“We love to do pieces of scale and scope and character,” Buccieri says. “We’ve screened it all over the country, and the response has been overwhelming.”
That includes a White House screening, and panel, May 17, though President Obama was not available to check it out.
There’s no chance Roots attains the ratings or cultural impact that it did four decades ago, but simply passing along the story to a new generation of viewers, and in the process sparking a dialogue on race, would merit the Roots reboot a success. The producers are under major pressure to do justice to the iconoclastic work; Wolper cops to “enormous anxiety and fear.”
But he views Roots like a Shakespearean play—a canonical piece that is fair game every time a new visionary comes along with a fresh take on bringing it to life. “New artists explore the material in new ways,” Wolper said. “New artists bring it up to date.”