Roots series opening
By the time the first episode of Roots aired on January 23, 1977, Alex Haley’s book had sold over a million copies in hardcover, ABC had invested over $6 million in the production and marketing of Roots, and Roots’s producers had cast several white television stars to make white audiences comfortable watching a series about a black family in slavery. Despite all of this, there was still no guarantee that Roots would be a commercial successful television series. Fred Silverman, ABC’s director of programming, decided that ABC would take the unusual step of airing Roots on eight consecutive nights. “We are taking this unprecedented approach to airing a ‘Novel for Television’ to insure maximum impact and continuity for what has already proven to be one of the most important dramatic stories of our time,” Silverman said. “By creating an ‘eight-day-week’ for this unique presentation we can provide the same kind of story concentration that is the very nature of a novel. A work this exceptional, this eagerly awaited, not only allows but requires exceptional treatment.” Silverman and his colleagues later acknowledged that ABC aired Roots in an unprecedented “eight-day-week” to limit the damage if the series did not catch on with television audiences. Despite these concerns, millions of Americans tuned in to Roots and, after eight nights, the series claimed seven of the top ten spots on the list of the most viewed shows of all time.
Kunta Kinta is born, a "disarming baby"
Roots started with a birthing mother’s cry. After months of promotion by ABC, millions of Americans tuned in to watch the opening night of the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s best-selling family story. The first thing television viewers heard and saw after the opening credits was Binta Kinte giving birth to a baby boy. Binta can be heard moaning from inside of a thatched hut in Savannah, Georgia, on a film set designed to stand in for eighteenth-century Gambia. Opening the series with this birthing scene was strategic. Part of the strategy was to foreground some of the series’ prominent actors. Cicely Tyson, who played Binta, was an award-winning actress and, along with Ed Asner, the most famous and highest-paid actor in the cast. (Tyson had enough clout to request and receive a credit for her hairdresser, Omar.) Maya Angelou, an actress and author well known for her biography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969), played one of the midwives, while Thalmus Rasulala, recognizable from blaxploitation films and various television roles, played Omoro Kinte. The scene was also was strategic because the producers hoped starting with a birth would help the series appeal to viewers across demographic lines. Haley described a similar motivation for starting his book with Kunta’s birth and childhood. “I hope,” Haley noted, the audience will be “intrigued with a disarming baby—for babies are universal.”
Behold the only thing greater than yourself
Holding the baby up toward a star-filled sky, Omoro Kinte says, “Kunta Kinte, behold the only thing greater than yourself.” This is one of the most iconic moments in Roots and has been referenced multiple times, including in Kara Walker’s Camptown Ladies silhouette and The Lion King.
Introducing Ed Asner as Captain Davies
Ed Asner, famous for his role as Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, played Captain Davies in the televised version of Roots, and promotional material for the series featured Asner prominently. The Davies character, established by the screenwriters and embodied by Asner, was a religious man who was morally conflicted about taking part in his first slaving voyage. The television production gave white characters much larger roles than in Haley’s book. In Haley’s book, the white slave catchers and slave ship crew are called toubob, and a white character with a proper name does not appear until Kunta learns the name of “Massa William Waller” at the end of chapter 51, over two hundred pages into the book. (Haley’s archives include the draft of a chapter written from the perspective of Captain Davies, but the author decided it was not needed.) In contrast, after opening with Kunta Kinte’s birth in 1750 the television series jumps ahead fifteen years to a scene set in an Annapolis, Maryland, port where Captain Thomas Davies is preparing to sail the Lord Ligonier to the coast of the Gambia. The slave ship captain in Haley’s book was unnamed and was described only from Kunta’s perspective. The captain’s personal history, motivations, and emotions were irrelevant for Haley’s story.
The Middle Passage
The Middle Passage scene in Roots was crucial to depicting the transition between freedom in Africa and slavery in the new world. In a warehouse on the outskirts of Savannah, production designer Jan Scott and her team designed and built the set for the first televised representation of the Middle Passage. The human component of the Middle Passage scene was more complicated. LeVar Burton and Ji-Tu Cumbuka, who played a character called the Wrestler, were the only Hollywood actors in the cargo hold for the Middle Passage scene. All of the other enslaved characters were young black extras recruited from Savannah. In the Washington Post, Sander Vanocur singled out the Middle Passage scene in praising Roots. “The scenes on the ship, with the slaves chained together, stacked alongside one another, lying in their vomit and excrement, . . . are something we have never seen before,” Vanocur wrote. “We have read about slavery. But we have never seen it, never in such painstaking detail and never being experienced with such excruciating pain.”
Captain Davies and “Girl on Ship”
While everyone agreed that the recreation of the slave ship’s voyage made for frighteningly realistic television, none of the Roots production team gave much thought to what shooting this scene would mean for the black performers involved. The case of Rebecca Bess is the most glaring example in this regard. Credited as “girl on ship,” Bess appears near the end of the first episode as an enslaved woman delivered to Captain Davies’s room as a “bellywarmer.” In the scene the sixteen-year-old Bess, who had never acted professionally, stares with terror at Asner’s character, her arms covering her bare breasts. While Captain Davies says he “does not approve of fornication,” it is implied that he rapes the young girl, signaling that this Christian character has too been debased by the slave trade. The next day (at the start of the second episode of the series), the young girl (still topless) climbs the rigging of the ship and jumps into the ocean to drown. In a series structured around the will of Haley’s ancestors to survive, Bess’s “girl on ship” stands out as the only character to choose death over the horrors of slavery. Bess came to Roots via Eddie Smith, a local black stunt coordinator in Savannah. She received $187 for diving from the ship into the ocean, which she had to do twice because the camera failed on the first shot. Bess did not know how to swim, so the stunt coordinator gave her lessons in the pool at the Ramada Inn where the cast was staying. Director David Greene recalled that Bess was eager to earn the money to help her parents because her mother was in the hospital. Audiences described watching Roots as a physically and emotionally wrenching experience, but creating these realistic representations of slavery often came at the expense of black performers.