In something of a return to its own roots, the re-imagining of seminal 1977 miniseries Roots had its world premiere this evening in front of a packed audience at the MipTV conference here in Cannes. History’s update, which bows in the U.S. over four consecutive nights beginning May 30 and will be simulcast on fellow A+E Networks channels A&E and Lifetime, is executive produced by Mark Wolper — son of the original’s David L Wolper. That groundbreaking event series had first been shopped at MipTV in 1977, EVP A+E Studios, Barry Jossen noted. The original’s finale remains the most-watched U.S. TV event ever with a 51 rating and a 71 share; numbers that “will never be matched,” Jossen added.
Wolper and co-executive producer LeVar Burton, who starred in 1977 as the Gambian youth Kunta Kinte with whom the series originated, were in attendance tonight along with the new cast members who spoke passionately about the mini, whose “emotional stories and thematic elements could not be more relevant today,” Jossen noted.
Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, the new Roots is an eight-hour historical portrait of American slavery that recounts the journey of one family and its will to survive and ultimately carry on a legacy despite intense hardship. Starting with the capture of Kunta Kinte in his African village, Roots follows his Middle Passage to colonial America as a slave and his family’s fight for survival while witnessing and contributing to notable moments in U.S. history, including the American Revolution and the Civil War.
On stage tonight in Cannes alongside a visibly moved Wolper and Burton were stars Anna Paquin, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Anika Noni Rose. Each of the team members were passionate in their discussion of the project, which preceeded a screening of half of the third installment that focuses on Kizzy (Rose), the daughter of Kinte (now played by Malachi Kirby, but not in tonight’s episode), and her son Chicken George (a strong Rege-Jean Page) by slave owner Tom Lee (Rhys Meyers).
The evening got off to a confused start for attendees who were told they could not sit in seats marked “reserved” — which amounted to essentially two-thirds of the room. Journalists and even one A+E executive ultimately overruled the hostesses and installed themselves for the event, which began with A+E Networks President of International and Digital Media Sean Cohan speaking. He recounted that he grew up in a biracial homogeneous New York suburb. Watching Roots as a young boy taught him “so much about who I was and about the ugly truth of hatred, oppression and indignity.”
“There are those rare moments in your career where there’s real alignment,” he said, “like a solar eclipse of certain things between what you’re personally passionate about and what’s important in your life and good and impactful for society and what makes sense professionally.” Roots, he said, was the best example of that alignment. Having seen the original as a child, “Forty years later I can safely say that this new vision of Roots is as, if not more, relevant today.”
Robert DeBitetto, President of Brand Strategy & Business Development at A+E Studios and Networks, added that he spent “more money than the company expected me to” on the $30M mini, “but that’s life as a corporate executive. No pain, no gain.” He called Roots “a labor of love on hallowed ground in television.”
The presentation offered a few clips and trailers during the discussion with the cast, who were brought out next (I don’t think I was the only person sniffling — I remember watching the original Roots with my family and being taught how important it was, even at age 7).
Tony winner Rose spoke about why now is a good time for a return to Roots. “Many young people didn’t see the original, and at this point entertainment has changed so greatly that they need a different visual for what they’re seeing.” she said. “What we’ve been able to do with this reimagining is find more information than we would have had in 1977. It’s really important for people to remember we are all connected. Not just as African-Americans but as Americans, and our world. The slave ships didn’t just stop in America. The diaspora is wide, and we all have a connection to each other.” That was met with loud applause in the Lumière.
She later added, “When people bring up slavery, very often the next thing is ‘Ugh, do we have to hear about it again?’ I never hear that when we speak about the Holocaust, this is America’s second Holocaust and needs to be told and heard and repeated. I hope they see in this woman (Kizzy) not just an enslaved woman, but the story of survival and the strength it takes every day to be told you’re not human, in spite of coming from something so grand and undefinable and you know you are as intelligent, strong, and more capable. I hope we learn to be able to shed the fear of truth and come to an understanding that human beings are fallible and ugly, but also amazing and strong.”
Burton continued the theme with the saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The story of Roots, he said, is “part and parcel part of civilization on this planet. It’s a story we need to retain our very souls so we don’t repeat the atrocities of the slave trade. There is slavery going on as we speak. Unless good people of conscience stand up and talk about it, there will be more.” More applause from the clearly moved audience.
Coming back to Roots after all this time was “extraordinary” for Burton, who is so closely associated with the role of the Gambian warrior. “I used to think life was a linear journey, but this has shown me it’s really circular,” he said.
Seeking the updated Kinte, Burton said they scanned several continents over several months and “found the right actor in Malachi.” The audience was then treated to a scene from the first episode that features Kirby and Forest Whitaker as Fiddler, the man charged with breaking the warrior into an existence of subservience.
Paquin, who turns up in a later episode as Nancy Holt, was revisitng the stage tonight where her breakout The Piano won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or in 1993. She was not yet born when the original Roots aired. “It was a blank spot in my education… If I managed to miss this piece of history in this way, then I’m sure there’s a lot of people who missed it too.” That includes her own children, whom she hopes to educate with both versions.
Rhys Meyers, who figured heavily as Tom Lee in the episode we saw tonight, called the character the “representation of what happens when greed and ignorance get the better of people. It’s a manifestation of everything that was wrong with the 19th century.” Lee is despicable in Part 3, despite some conflict between being the father of Chicken George and also his owner. Rhys Meyers calls him the “physical embodiment of a sociopathic plantation owner” who is nevertheless changed when the child is born — of a rape of Kizzy. “It was not very easy to go home and sleep very easy. I didn’t sleep very much on Roots,” he said. “The whole experience was like an intense historical re-enactment you could not imagine.”
Wolper was last to speak, and did so choked-up. “My father sat in this very place. It’s been a burden to even contemplate doing this again. I was afraid to do what my father had done, walk in his footsteps but also try to create a project that has such global impact as the first Roots did.” After many proposals to revisit the material, he finally decided to do it after his 16-year-old son refused to watch the original. He understood why it was important, but, Wolper recounted, said, “like your music, it doesn’t speak to me.” It was at that moment Wolper realized: “I had to get over my fear and tell the story again. It was a monumentally emotional moment for me.”
At the end of the screening there was enthusiastic applause, but also the sense that the audience had been through a tough journey. What we saw ended on a dour note which had been immediately preceded by a very happy one (despite the cock-fighting scenes which are a bit hard to take).
The new eight-hour event mini is distributed by A+E Studios International. It also stars Laurence Fishburne, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Matthew Goode, Mekhi Phifer, James Purefoy and Chad L Coleman.
Roots is an A+E Studios production in association with Marc Toberoff and The Wolper Organization. Will Packer, Toberoff, Wolper, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal serve as executive producers. Burton and Korin D Huggins are co-executive producers. Konner, Rosenthal, Alison McDonald, and Charles Murray are the writers. Questlove is executive music producer. Roots is directed by Phillip Noyce, Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter and Bruce Beresford.