Amid an already reboot-crazy TV season–a new Ironside here, a new Murder, She Wrote there–History channel now has plans to develop a remake of Roots, the 1977 slavery epic miniseries that remains one of the most acclaimed and culturally important TV shows of all time. And you’re probably thinking–as I did, as Levar Burton did–why?
Good question. There’s no artistic reason to remake Roots. (There is maybe a commercial one, following Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, as creepy as it may be to think that slavery is “hot.”) The new version is unlikely to add much; at 8 hours to the original’s 12, it will probably subtract. And it’s not like the original–available streaming and on DVD–really begs fixing; I re-watched it several years ago while compiling TIME’s top-100 TV list, and it holds up fantastically well. The best a new version could hope to do aesthetically is not to screw anything up too badly.
And yet it could all be worth it anyway.
Sure, if viewers of a new generation–or the old one–really want to experience Roots for the first or second time, they can already do so. But they probably won’t, even if you simply bought the rights and re-aired it. (The miniseries still reruns today, recently on BET.) At least they won’t in the kind of numbers to generate the conversation and reflection that–beyond what we saw on the screen–was what made the original Roots a phenomenon.
I was in elementary school when the original Roots aired, and it’s hard to overstate how the show dominated conversation in the U.S, while it was on. I watched it; my friends–mostly small-town white kids–watched it; grown adults watched it, black, white, and other. We all took different things from it and appreciated it at different levels. But with the civil-rights fights and assassinations of the ’60s still relatively fresh, we all needed it, as brutal as it was to watch. You might know, from textbooks, that millions of people were kept in America like animals, denied even the power to name themselves, but that was nothing next to seeing it.
Time has passed, and the U.S. has a black president. The country’s issues and needs may be different from the 1970s; there is, for instance, more consciousness of African American heritage today, in part because of Roots’ legacy. But racism hasn’t ended, and history hasn’t been revoked. Whatever you thought of the Trayvon Martin case and verdict, the ugliness around it proved, if it needed proving, that there is nothing “post-racial” about America. (In pop culture, meanwhile, Saturday Night Live is still on the air, and its racial representation is still an issue.) The need to learn and look back on the history that Roots tells is as important as ever.
But like it or not, people need the buzz of something new to draw their attention. This is our culture now: unlike in 1977, there are dozens of TV outlets, thousands of media outlets, millions of news stories and memes flittering across our radar. Without a hook–even if that hook is “Seemingly gratuitous remake of TV classic”–there is little reason to stop and notice.
(Sure, the best thing might be for someone to create a new work that galvanizes attention the way Roots did or that explores other troubled corners of American history. They still can! No one’s stopping them!)
Realistically, no remake of Roots–no TV show, period–is ever going to have the kind of reach that Roots did, when it was a new and stunning thing, when original cable programming scarcely existed, and when broadcast networks like ABC commanded massive audiences. (Nearly two-thirds of all TVs in use were tuned to the show, an unheard-of figure today outside the Super Bowl.) Still, History channel is one of the few outlets that still knows how to attract big audiences with miniseries, as it did with The Bible and Hatfields and McCoys.
So no, America may not need another version of this story. But it can use another version of the conversation. A new Roots probably won’t be be nearly as good. But it can still do good.