Remake: Alex Haley’s “Roots”

In the late ’70s, ABC ran a popular mini-series called Roots, based on the Alex Haley autobiographical novel. The depictions in this mini-series (a tranquil, idyllic village of peaceful Africans invaded by mean white men from the New World who snatch them up and haul them onto slave ships) arguably did more to shape America’s popular conception of the history of slavery than any other cultural artifact.

In short, the cultural impact of Roots, in shaping conventional wisdom about the history of slavery, is incalculable.

In 1977, Haley even won a special Pulitzer Prize for the ‘non-fiction’ book Roots.

Just one problem: The Village Voice, not exactly a conservative publication, published in 1993 an in-depth investigation uncovering the fact that Haley’s entire account of his own family’s alleged history (the entire basis of his book and the movie) was a complete hoax. [See Philip Nobile, “Alex Haley’s Hoax: How the Celebrated Author Faked the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Roots,’” Village Voice, February 1993].


That didn’t stop the memetic force of the Roots juggernaut though, which will take another 100 years to recover from (when it’s not further being incubated by crap like Amistad, 12 Years A Slave, etc, ad infinitum).

So, naturally Hollywood is doing a remake of Roots.

One of TV’s most successful miniseries will get the remake treatment and air across corporate siblings History Channel, A&E and Lifetime, the companies announced Thursday.

Will Packer (Ride Along) is set to executive produce alongside original Roots star LeVar Burton, who will co-exec produce. Mark Wolper also will serve as an EP on the A+E Studios production in association with Marc Toberoff and The Wolper Organization.

The miniseries will air in 2016.

News of the remake first surfaced in November, with History plotting an eight-hour mini based on the 1977 entry. Wolper’s father, David L. Wolper, exec produced the original 12-hour mini. That series — which aired on ABC in January 1977 — earned a whopping 37 Emmy nominations, taking home nine including best limited series and wins for Ed Asner (supporting actor) and Quincy Jones (music).

Lawrence Konner (Boardwalk Empire), Mark Rosenthal (Mona Lisa Smile), Alison McDonald (Nurse Jackie) and Charles Murray (Sons of Anarchy) will pen the new Roots. Victoria Thomas (The Hateful Eight) is the casting director. Roots will be an original, contemporary production, incorporating more material from Alex Haley‘s source novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, as well as carefully researched new scholarship of the time. The networks note that they’re working with prominent historians in the fields of African and African-American history, as well as diverse leaders from across the country, to use Roots to stimulate discussion and awareness about the origin story that informs American culture today.

37 Emmy nominations… which reflects the massive cultural influence Roots had at the time.

What are the odds viewers of the remake will be informed that Roots is a sham?

Nobile’s piece is not available online at — I wonder why? [/sarcasm].

It might be because Nobile characterized Alex Haley’s novel as “one of the great literary hoaxes of modern times”, and that doesn’t help the leftwing, Village Voice idea of what the narrative should be.

Nonetheless, you can find some discussion of Nobile’s piece and Haley’s hoax here, here, here, here, and here.

Nobile himself has a 2002 piece titled “For History’s Sake: Three Pulitzers That Should Be Revoked“, in which he writes:

What Haley did not steal in his slave novel based on a bogus seven–generation family tree stretching back to Africa, he simply made up. And the shady house of Doubleday dared to market the fakery, and still does with all stolen passages intact, as non-fiction!

As a plagiarist, Haley was insatiable. Desperate to complete a book several years beyond deadline and already sold to Hollywood, he devoured Harold Courlander’s novel, “The African,” and Margaret Walker’s novel, “Jubilee,” for characters, plots and scene after scene. Both sued. Both proved copyright infringement beyond a reasonable doubt. Courlander walked off with a $650,000 settlement after Haley perjured himself on the stand. Walker, victim of a biased federal judge who thought Haley was above suspicion, lost on summary judgement.

In the history department, Haley was a fabulous flimflammer. Kunta Kinte, his alleged African forebear, was a multi–million dollar grift dreamt up with Gambian government officials hoping to create a tourist trap for gullible African Americans. None of this is disputed. Everything is backed up by an arsenal of smoking guns left behind in Haley’s posthumous papers at the University of Tennessee.

What did the all–white, all–male, 1977 Pulitzer Board know about “Roots” and when did they know it? A week before the announcement, the Sunday Times of London and then the New York Times exposed Haley’s African fieldwork as a charade and sank his claim to genealogical fame. Nonetheless, the Board shamelessly jumped on the “Roots” bandwagon and stamped a known counterfeit as a classic. Chairman Russell won’t endorse a “formal denunciation” of Haley, but he is scarcely naïve about the fiasco committed by the 1977 Board, which he mocked in a 1988 letter as “a Jonsonian comedy of so many citizens being so thoroughly hoaxed.”

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