History

Roots (1977)

Roots was a television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The miniseries aired from January 23, 1977, to January 30, 1977, on the ABC network. The original series followed the story of Kunta Kinte, from his capture and enslavement in West Africa during the Colonial period through the family’s history until the end of the Civil War. The series had an al-star cast including LeVar Burton as “Young Kunta Kinte,” John Amos as “Older Kunta Kunte,” Cicely Tyson as “Binta,” Maya Angelou as “Nyo Boto,” O.J. Simpson as “Kadi Touray,” Ben Vereen as “Chicken George Moore,” Louis Gossett Jr. as “Fiddler,” and many others.

The plot of Roots starts during the 1700s and begins with Kunta Kinte being born in the West African country of Gambia in 1750. Kinte was captured by slave traders and placed on the British slave ship, Lord Ligonier in 1767. The ship sailed to Annapolis, Maryland, where Kunta Kinte is sold to plantation owner John Reynolds (Lorne Greene) from Spotsylvania County, Virginia. He renames Kunta Kinte Toby. Kunta Kunte would make many unsuccessful escape attempts to the point of being whipped severely.

LeVar Burton in Slave Ship
LeVar Burton in Slave Ship

As the story progresses during the late 18th century and early 19th centuries, Kunta Kinte becomes an adult who still attempts to escape from slavery but is captured by a slave-catchers who chopped half his foot off. He would meet and marry Bell (Madge Sinclair) and the couple would have a daughter named Kizzy (Leslie Uggams). Kizzy would be sold to Tom Moore (Chuck Connors), a plantation owner from North Carolina. Moore rapes Kizzy, and she has a child named Chicken George Moore played by Ben Vereen.

Alex Haley Book Cover
Alex Haley Book Cover

As the story progresses toward the Civil War, other characters are introduced, including Matilda (Olivia Cole), Tom Harvey (Georg Stanford Brown), Irene Harvey (Lynne Moody), and Ol’ George Johnson (Brad Davis). The series finale holds the record as the third highest-rated episode for any television series according to the Nielsen ratings. It was also the second most-watched series finale in U.S. television history. Roots were nominated for 37 Primetime Emmy Awards and won nine. It also won a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award.

Despite the success of the miniseries and novel, controversy emerges where Author Harold Courlander sued Alex Haley. Courlander, the author of the novel The African, claims that Haley had plagiarized sections of his book in his novel, Roots. The case was settled out of court with Haley paying Courlander and his publisher $650,000.

Lou Gossett and LeVar Burton Scene in <i>Roots</i>
Lou Gossett and LeVar Burton Scene in Roots

The success of the miniseries would lead to another miniseries called Roots: The Next Generations that aired from February 18, 1979 to February 24, 1979. Roots: The Next Generations, which was based on the lasted seven chapters of Haley’s novel Roots extended the family’s history from the Reconstruction era to the 1960s. In 1988, a film based on the miniseries Roots: The Gift was released with Burton and Gossett in starring roles. In 1993, Queen was released based on Haley’s novel Queen: The Story of an American Family paternal grandmother Queen Jackson Haley played by Halle Barry. In 2016, a remake of the miniseries was broadcast on the History Channel.

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