David Wolper, a prolific film and TV producer who brought miniseries The Thorn Birds and most notably Roots to TV, died Tuesday at age 82. (In addition to his TV projects, he produced movies including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and L.A. Confidential.) In the above clip, he attributes the success of Roots in part to the fact that it was a “family story.” It’s true, in that the miniseries took the legacy of race in America and told it through a frame, the intergenerational journey of one family, that made it approachable in scale while still epic.
But it did more than that, as I’m sure Wolper knew. The miniseries was also a family history, which vicariously gave a genealogical story to an entire people who had been denied it because of the machinery of slavery, which obliterated family and cultural origins, which could only be pieced together later (as in Alex Haley’s book). This obviously had tremendous resonance to African Americans, but it was Americans of all colors who made Roots one of TV’s most massive hits ever. Coming in 1977, not long after the strugles, riots and assassinations of the ’60s, it was a gift to all of America to present a linear story that showed how slavery and its repercussions operated over the centuries.
Wolper’s Roots was one family’s story that had a lasting effect on millions of families. RIP.