The Impact of David. L. Wolper’s Roots
Roots made history, with history.
Based on Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, David. L. Wolper’s Roots broke
precedent in US TV history. This miniseries had the largest Black cast in the history of commercial television for its time, while calling out US involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and institutionalized racism. Before the release of Roots, Black Americans assumed that it was impossible to track their lineage, but the research conducted by Hayley spurred a precedent.
Wolper’s Roots portrayed the story of Kunta Kinte; an African man who was taken from The Gambia and enslaved until he passed in 1750. The miniseries depicted Kinte being kidnapped in his adolescence, sold into the transatlantic slave trade, transported to North America and bought for forced labour in Maryland. Roots captured the effects of intergenerational trauma by showcasing Kinte’s descendants living through various periods of institutionalized racism in America.
Hayley’s novel is ‘faction’. Although having traced his family lineage back to Kinte, a lot of the novel contained fictional events. However, the events that took place in the storyline realistically would have occurred in that time period, therefore providing a historically accurate depiction of the transatlantic slave trade.
The miniseries shocked its viewers; and had rippling effects on culture, inspiring Black Americans to research their lineage. Its raw presentation of US history sparked a national conversation toward Black American’s lingeage and America’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
ABC aired the miniseries on eight consecutive winter nights in January of 1977. The broadcasting company feared the failure of the screening, thinking it wouldn’t attract viewers outside of the Black American demographic, so instead of releasing the episodes weekly, ABC released the series on back-to-back nights, in an effort to lessen the risk and burn through the screenings.
ABC could not have been more wrong.
This was the first time for a series to be released in consecutive nights on commercial television - and it was a hit.
Roots broke U.S. viewing records and the series remains in the country’s 100 top-rated shows. By the first screening, it was the sixth-most-watched series in television history. Networks consider a series a blockbuster if it is watched in 3 out of 10 households; Roots was viewed on the TV-screens in the homes of over half the American population.
Richard Roundtree, who made a cameo in Roots said, “You got a sense of White Americans thinking, ‘Damn, that really happened'” — but for presenting the story from the black point of view, devoid of stereotypes.” The miniseries was the first prolonged experience for many White Americans that, instead of being asked to surface level identify with cultural experiences that were alien to them, to actually empathize with them.
Showcasing its integration in American culture, the names ‘Kunta’ and ‘Kizzy’ - characters in the miniseries - began trending in the following month of February.
Roots served as a necessary cultural shock in US history. At the time of it’s release, the market was supporting trends against socially conscious programming T.V. shows on the rise included Happy Days, Charlie’s Angels, and Laverne & Shirley – all majorly white, with little interest in the present social issues.
The miniseries enforced a cultural shock on the industry by having the largest Black cast in commercial history - ignoring the market trends, serving as a platform that educated White audiences on the cruel reality of their history and spurred a spark toward the research of Black American lineage, and did so in an enticing manner.