When the television mini-series Roots first aired on ABC-TV in 1977, it was a seismic event in the medium. The adaptation of the Alex Haley novel Roots: The Saga Of An American Family earned an unprecedented 37 Emmy nominations, winning nine, in addition to taking home a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. The ambitious project – presenting the ancestry of one contemporary man in narrative form – sparked discussion, debate and interest in the history of slavery – something that had long been a taboo subject.
The story begins in colonial times, in 1750, with the birth of Kunta Kinte in The Gambia, West Africa. At age 15 he is captured and sold into slavery – transported by ship to colonial America. By the late 18th century, Kunta has made many unsuccessful attempts to escape. He meets a cook named Belle, whom he marries and with whom he has a daughter named Kizzy. Kizzy grows up and is secretly educated by an owner’s daughter. She falls in love with a fellow slave and plans their escape – but as punishment, the two are sold on separately. Kizzy’s new owner rapes her, resulting in the birth of a son named George.
As George grows, he becomes an expert in cockfighting and is taken away from his family to England for a period of time to train cockfighters for his owner. George returns to America as a free man shortly before the Civil War begins, and is persecuted by local white men as he tries to settle in. The story concludes after the Civil War, as George moves to build a new life on his own land in Tennessee.
This new version of the Roots story will return to the source novel, as opposed to focusing on the 1977 miniseries, and will therefore contain material not previously seen onscreen. The writers – Lawrence Konner (Boardwalk Empire), Mark Rosenthal (Mona Lisa Smile), Alison McDonald (Nurse Jackie) and Charles Murray (Sons Of Anarchy) – are also consulting closely with notable historians specializing in African and African-American history, to fully inform the project.
Roots will be executive produced by Will Packer and actor LeVar Burton, who starred in the 1977 version in the role of Kunta Kinte. It is currently intended to air on the History Channel, A + E and Lifetime in 2016, as the History Channel looks to build on the success of its previous hit series The Bible and Hatfields And McCoys. With just twelve months before it is set to hit our screens, we should expect casting announcements soon.