The Louisiana-shot Remake of “Roots” Premieres
Author Alex Haley’s epic tale is retold with an all-star cast, fresh scholarship and a contemporary take for a new generation.
Mark Wolper, the pioneer of the “Roots” remake, is president and executive producer of the Wolper Organization that has produced over 500 films.
photo courtesy A+E Studios/HISTORY
Thirty-nine years after the original television mini-series “Roots” first pierced the nation’s consciousness, earning a record 36 Emmy nominations and nine wins with its gripping portrait of American slavery, a big-budget, star-studded eight-hour “Roots” remake premieres on Memorial Day, May 30.
The original 12-hour “Roots” that aired in 1977 is still the third highest-rated TV show of all time. An unprecedented 100 million people watched the last episode; this marginally trails the Super Bowl’s record 114 million TV viewers in 2015.
The subject of slavery, which has become a veritable Hollywood sub-genre, has been central to successful films including the last movie produced in Louisiana that won an Oscar, “12 Years a Slave.” Curiously, three recent Louisiana-shot productions involving slavery are running contiguously, including WGN’s TV series “Underground” that premiered in March, the new “Roots” May-June and “The Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey, to be released June 24.
It appears that producers of the new “Roots” may have stumbled, albeit serendipitously, into a much larger cultural conversation, considering the current, tense political climate preceding presidential elections. While it arrives amid the plethora of slave narratives, including the 2016 Sundance Film Festival sensation, “The Birth of a Nation” that won the Grand Jury Prize, its primary objective is the enlightenment of a new generation.
Blazing a historical trail with new information in the film industry is something to be saluted. The networks worked closely with many prominent historians for the newest adaptation of Haley’s best-selling novel, discovering and correcting facts along the way. The powerful story that spans multiple generations is being co-produced by original series star LeVar Burton, who played the young Kunta Kinte in 1977. English actor Malachi Kirby was tapped to play lead Kunta Kinte in the remake, after a search that spanned several countries.
“There’s a huge audience of young Americans who do not know the story of ‘Roots’ or its importance,” states Burton. “I believe now is the right time to tell this story so that we can all be reminded of its impact on our culture and identity.”
Simulcast as a four-night event on History, A&E and Lifetime, “Roots” is an A&E Studios production in association with Marc Toberoff and The Wolper Organization, the company that produced the original Roots that was filmed largely in California.
The 2016 “Roots” reboot was filmed in South Louisiana and South Africa. Will Packer (“Ride Along,” “Think Like a Man”) is executive producer with Mark Wolper, Marc Toberoff, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. Directors include Philip Noyce (“Patriot Games”), Mario Van Peebles (“New Jack City”), Thomas Carter (“Coach”) and Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”).
Local production crews reported elaborate sets for the filming at various plantations including Evergreen, Felicity, Madewood and Oak Alley. The highly anticipated four-night mini-series, which wrapped in February, was also shot at the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, Imahara Botanical Gardens in St. Francisville, Tickfaw State Park in Springfield, St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, Longue Vue Gardens, UNO Aquatic Center and City Park in New Orleans.
The series stars Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), Anna Paquin (“True Blood”), Laurence Fishburne (“Black-ish”), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“The Tudors), Anika Noni Rose (“Dream Girls, “The Princess and the Frog”), Grammy winner “T.I.” Harris and a dozen other A-listers. Four writers were selected for each of the four episodes: Lawrence Konner (“Boardwalk Empire,” “The Sopranos,” “Planet of the Apes”), Mark Rosenthal (“Mona Lisa Smile,” “Planet of the Apes,”), Alison McDonald (“Alpha House,” “Nurse Jackie”) and Charles Murray (“Sons of Anarchy,” “Luke Cage”).
Why do you feel that now is the best time to finally retell this powerful story? We started on this idea long before President Obama’s second term, interestingly enough. I kept refusing to do it. But it wasn’t until almost four years ago, when I sat down with my son, then age 15, to watch the original “Roots.” He said something very wise: ‘You know, Dad, I understand why this is important, but it’s like your music. It doesn’t resonate with me.’ At that moment I realized that we had to do “Roots” because it doesn’t mean anything to their generation. Black or white, you don’t really understand who you are until you understand where you came from. This is our collective story.
How is your contemporary perspective different from the original series? When Alex Haley wrote the book, there wasn’t the kind of historical and archeological research for the original mini-series that was prompted for the remake. We were going to produce it for the History Channel. They had the same mandate as I did, that everything had to be as historically accurate as possible. For instance, we found that the city he was captured in wasn’t a village, it was over 10,000 people, a center of education and culture. And he wasn’t actually captured by black slavers. Even his passage to America, we found new information.
Why did you engage different writers and directors for each of the four episodes? Because I wanted each night to be its own distinctive night. I wanted the writers to give their different perspectives through their own eyes.
Why did you select Louisiana as your filming location? Because of the great people, the food, the great deal, and because of the great, experienced crews we had to work with. Also, the people really take care of their plantations, which are meticulous. I will keep coming back because of this.