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25 years after Alex Haley's "Roots"

By Elizabeth Schulte | February 1, 2002 | Page 9

TWENTY-FIVE years ago in January, the miniseries "Roots," a drama about U.S. slavery that opened up a conversation on race never heard before, ran on ABC. And everyone watched it.

"Roots"--based on Alex Haley's historical novel about his ancestors--begins with the story of Kunta Kinte, an African who is sold into slavery and brought to America. "Roots" pulled few punches, showing the unimaginable brutality of the slave masters, as in a scene in which Kunta Kinte is whipped into saying his slave name.

The series ran for eight consecutive nights and remains the third highest-rated program ever. It's estimated that half the U.S. population watched it, and about 100 million viewers tuned in to the final chapter.

ABC almost didn't run it, because network executives thought a story about slavery would be a ratings disaster. What they found is that ABC became the No. 1 network because of the program's enormous popularity.

Of course, some people never learn their lesson. Documentary filmmaker Judith Leonard decided to make a film on the 25th anniversary to talk about the social implications of "Roots." She lined up cast members, such as LeVar Burton and author Maya Angelou, as well as celebrities such as Michael Jordan, to take part.

When she approached ABC execs with their idea, they said no. Instead, the show ran on NBC.

"'Roots' was part of the emergence of a new consciousness in this country in terms of what our common and shared history is around this very central issue of race," Burton, who played Kunta Kinte, said in a recent interview. "It certainly affected the audience more than it tended to affect the industry. I remember there was a huge sense of anticipation within the African American community within Hollywood that there would be some huge sea change post-'Roots.' That never materialized."

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