By RODNEY HO/ email@example.com, originally filed Friday, May 25, 2016
Nearly 40 years ago, ABC execs were deeply nervous about “Roots,” a miniseries about the slave experience based on a best-selling Alex Haley novel. So they decided to air it on eight consecutive nights in January, hoping that would minimize ratings damage if it were a dud.
Instead, “Roots” became the biggest miniseries ever and one of the most popular programs in TV history, drawing a whopping 100 million viewers for its finale.
The media world in 2016 is far more fragmented. History Channel expects to draw a small fraction of that number with its modernized version of “Roots,” even after simulcasting it on sister stations Lifetime and A&E.
Still, anybody under the age of 40 wasn’t around to see the seminal series live. Original executive producer Dave Wolper’s son Mark thought it was time to revive the series for a new generation since he felt the original didn’t hold up. And he asked Atlanta film executive Will Packer for help.
Packer is best known for lighter fare such as “Stomp the Yard” and “Ride Along.” But he had just worked on the critically acclaimed “Straight Outta Compton.” He was seeking to broaden his palette. Joining this important project was not a difficult choice.
“I’ve done very well creating content for Millenials, for the youth culture,” said Packer, 42, in a recent interview at downtown Atlanta. “We have the opportunity to use contemporary filming styles. They shot the entire original on a ranch in California. We shot scenes in Africa. We shot scenes on actual plantations in Louisiana. We spent a lot of attention to detail. We pored over the minutiae to get this right.”
The revamp spends less time on the white characters and focuses more on Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) and his progeny. A Gambian warrior captured and enslaved in 1767 and sent to a Virginia plantation, Kinte remains a major influence through multiple generations. The series concludes just after the Civil War.
While the reboot sticks close to the same story lines as the original, a few new characters are added. Cyrus, for instance, convinces Kinte’s grandson Chicken George (Rege-Jean Page) to join the Union Army and becomes his confidante. Packer asked Atlanta rap star and actor Tip “T.I.” Harris, who had starred in Packer’s 2010 action film “Takers,” to take the role.
T.I. initially resisted. “At first I said, ‘Hell naw. I’m not doing that!’ ” he said. “But after consideration of the character and reading the synopsis for Cyrus, I kind of felt compelled to do it. It wasn’t something I wanted to do. It was something I had to do.”
The original series does not show Chicken George at war. “They just alluded to the fact he fought for the Union Army,” T.I. said. “My character tells him that a war is starting. Might as well fight and come back to his family as a free man.”
Cyrus appears near the end of hour seven, set to air on Thursday. He participates in a big fighting scene in the eighth hour, helping shoot a cannon with Chicken George. “It was intense,” he said, “and extremely loud. The conditions were not normal Hollywood where you show up with a big trailer and get pampered and eat food all day. This was rigorous. We were in real dirt. This was real heat and humidity. It made for the best depiction of actual circumstances. And it was a heavy set of circumstances. It added weight to all of our performances.”
T.I. is glad his character has some swagger and a desire not to be treated like a second-class citizen. “There has always been resistance,” he said. “I think they wanted me to come in and convey that.”
“Roots,” 9 p.m.-11 p.m., Monday through Thursday (May 30-June 2), A&E, History, Lifetime