A+E Networks’ remake of seminal 1977 miniseries Roots could play a more important role than just being interesting television, say its producers
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“This is the environment in the US,” says A+E Studios president Bob DeBitetto. He is referring to the climate in which A+E Networks is producing a reboot of the 1977 ABC miniseries Roots.
The original has gone down in television and US cultural history, telling the generational story of African slaves stolen from the continent in the 18th century and forced to endure horrendous boat voyages across violent seas and then sold into a lifetime of slave labour in the American South.
“We began to feel in development that especially right now, race relations and the challenges we face as a nation make this story more relevant than it’s ever been before,” says DeBitetto, who launched A+E Studios in 2013. “As we look forward we feel we have got the ability to engage people on the issue. We can add something of value to the debate around race in America today.”
It is 40 years next January since the original four-part miniseries aired on ABC. At that time, the network was so concerned about the project that it was scheduled to run on consecutive nights in order to burn through before important ratings battles later in the season. Roots, however, became the third-highest-rated broadcast in US TV history and started a cultural revolution around slavery education.
Part of the rationale behind bringing it back, DeBitetto says, is that A+E “is literally bringing it to a new generation”. He says Mark Wolper, son of original producer David Wolper and who has “co-controlled and protected the legacy of the brand over the years”, realised that his teenage children were part of an entire generation that “knew nothing” about the programme.
“Two-thirds of the country hasn’t seen it,” says DeBitetto.
The A+E channels group is putting significant weight behind the launch, handing it a Memorial Day (May 30) 9pm slot and running it over four nights. It will simulcast on History, A&E and Lifetime. “We have seen enough to think we have got something quite special, so we wanted to reach the widest possible audience,” says DeBitetto. “Memorial Day is perhaps the best time of the year to launch a show for History. Given the scope and importance, we have mobilised the entire resource of our company around it.”
A+E is positioning each two-hour episode as a mini-film that will add up to a miniseries. Phillip Noyce, Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter and Bruce Beresford each direct one 120-minute programme, with the likes of Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew Goode and Mekhi Phifer all starring. British actor Malachi Kirby has bagged the iconic lead role of Kunta Kinte.
The first Kinte, LeVar Burton, who has become an ambassador for Roots’ cultural importance, is one of a large number of producers attached to the project. DeBitetto says the auspices line-up represents the huge collaborative effort that went into creating the show, which A+E will debut internationally as a wholly-owned property. “We had 750 people – including a hugely diverse selection of writers, directors and actors – employed over two continents, with the African scenes shot in South Africa,” he says.
While A+E’s Roots shares its name with the original, DeBitetto says it should not be considered a remake. “We felt there was an opportunity to bring new perspective and depth to the modern Roots,” he says.
“The last thing we wanted was an unoriginal remake. We wanted to reimagine it with the 40 years of history that have intervened. We’re trying to go back to the source material, the Alex Haley book, and render that in an unvarnished and brutally honest way.”