'Roots:' The Show About Race That United American Viewers

By | June 27, 2019

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Left: LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte in 'Roots.' Right: Lloyd Bridges (as Evan Brent) and Georg Stanford Brown (as Tom Harvey). Sources: (IMDB; Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Today's TV phenomena -- like The Sopranos or the recently-ended Game Of Thrones -- inspire passionate fans, but they pale in comparison to the 1977 miniseries Roots. Based on Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel, Roots captivated the country when it aired over eight consecutive nights, with its final episode reaching over half the TV viewing public. It was a historical drama, with a star-studded cast that included LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen, John Amos, Louis Gossett Jr., and Leslie Uggams -- and it also made TV history of its own.

In the 1970s, the miniseries thrived as the original sort of binge-watching experience. The stories unfolded slowly, allowing viewers to get more involved in the plotline and the characters’ lives. They had a distinct story arc, and, since this was the time DVR, people needed to make sure that they tuned in on the night of the broadcast, or risk being excluded.

Roots aired from January 23-30, 1977, despite ABC’s initial apprehension about the show. It was an unexpected phenomenon, being watched by an estimated 130 million viewers, which was more than half the U.S. population. The only scripted TV broadcast that has ever surpassed the Roots finale was the final episode of MASH (a finale that was 11 years in the making), in 1983.

Could a show about what we now call "black history" unite Americans of all races around their TV sets today? Who knows -- in these fragmented times, it seems hard to find anything that unites us, and there are infinitely more viewing options. But with just three networks to choose from and perfect execution, Roots prevailed in 1977.

Tracing The Beginnings Of A Family

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Left: Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou in 'Roots.' Right: Author Alex Haley and LeVar Burton on set. Sources: (IMDB; warnerbros.com)

The story begins with the abduction of Alex Haley's ancestor Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) from Gambia, tracing his travels to Annapolis Maryland, where he is sold into slavery. The story continues to trace the family throughout the 18th century (with John Amos taking over the role of Kunta Kinte) and into the post-Civil War era. The mini-series ends with Chicken George (Ben Vereen), one of Kunta Kinte’s descendants, recounting the story once they arrived in their new home in Tennessee. This was followed by a montage of photographs of Alex Haley’s family accompanied by a voice-over by Haley himself. 

The miniseries ended earlier than the book, which went on to portray three additional generations.