Does *History* Deserve Roots?

RootsLike many of you I am excited about the first episode of the mini-series Roots, which airs on the History channel tomorrow evening. I am also concerned. History does not have the best track record when it comes to programs that are actually about history. Many of their most popular programs have only a loose connection to the serious exploration of the past, such as American Pickers and Pawn Stars. Documentaries such as America: A History of Us and The Men Who Built America offer such a narrow and simplistic view of their subjects that they are almost worthless. Other programs, namely Ancient Aliens, throws the book out completely.

This is the right time for the re-making of Roots, but that it is associated in any way with History ought to concern anyone who is hoping for a mature and challenging look at the history of race and slavery. History’s track record alone does not bode well for this series, but even if it is successful along these lines its legitimacy is far from secure.

Again, consider the family of programs in which Roots will reside. How do you defend the history of slavery and race presented in this series alongside claims that ancient aliens built the pyramids and explanations of why the U.S. dropped the Atomic Bomb on Japan from Rick Harrison and Chumlee?

As we all know, the history and memory of slavery is fraught with misunderstanding and myth. Roots carries with it a great deal of cultural weight and significance for many Americans. This is not just the re-making of any mini-series and the history of slavery is not just any piece of our national story. It goes without saying that expectations are high.

I just can’t help but wish that the airing of a new version of Roots for a new generation of Americans wasn’t happening on a different channel tomorrow evening.

9 comments… add one
  • Christian McWhirter May 29, 2016

    While I certainly agree that the History [Channel] airs some seriously problematic shows, I prefer to look at this recent move optimistically. Early reviews suggest the new Roots is built on a strong historical foundation. If so, let’s hope it draws a big audience. Then we might not have to worry about the History [Channel]’s reputation because the network might realize there’s interest in quality historical programming. Ratings is the name of the game. Good ratings for good history means less ancient aliens.

  • Forester May 29, 2016

    I haven’t watched “The Hitler Channel” since 2005, so I can’t comment on that. I remember it being way too much WWII, but that’s all I remember. Hence that old Hitler joke.

    But I would prefer that “Roots” air on network TV, like the original did, so it can draw the biggest audience. For me, it’s a movie. But for other people, it’s a gateway into discovering their ethic heritage, and that needs to be as widely available as possible. Do black people living in poverty (who probably need to see it more than anyone) even have access to cable? Maybe they do, IDK. But I wonder.

    I really love the original, and I hope this one will be as good.

  • Greg Rowe May 29, 2016

    I’m really disappointed that network television saw no value in a modern remake or a reairing of the original and it was left to History. I understand these productions are costly, but I do think it would have been worth more than a glance by network execs. I realize the television universe has fragmented since the original series aired, but I believe, just for the sake of protecting the brand, someone at NBC dropped this in a major way.

    • Kevin Levin May 30, 2016

      Perhaps the backstory will reveal that I owe History an apology and a thank you for getting behind this mini-series.

  • Jimmy Dick May 29, 2016

    It will be more interesting to see how the Confederate heritage community sees the miniseries as well as how white audiences perceive it. I am sure the heritage types will be busy denying as much as they can, but they really don’t have much to work with.

    The New York Times review was interesting.

    • Kevin Levin May 30, 2016

      I think we can predict how they will respond, most of who will do so without having seen it.

  • BPS May 31, 2016

    Kevin:
    What do you think about the factual problems with Alex Haley’s “Roots”?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roots:_The_Saga_of_an_American_Family#Historical_accuracy

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2016

      Roots should not be understood as an academic work of history.

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