'Roots' Cast on the Challenges of Remaking Iconic Miniseries

The 1977 ABC show forced Americans to confront the issues of slavery and now History Channel has updated the historical classic.
6:43 | 05/27/16

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Transcript for 'Roots' Cast on the Challenges of Remaking Iconic Miniseries
It was by every measure, epic. The made for television mini series, "Roots" which air aired in 12977. A record 85% of households watched. That's more than have watched olympics or the super bowl. It was a human story of slavery told from the slave's perspective. Now a new version of the show for a new generation premiers next week. Few roles in television history cast a longer shadow than this actor. The african boy who became an American slave in "Roots". I opened my eyes, and I was here. Sold. Reporter: A record 130 million people tuned in. A milestone for our nation. You name tobet. Reporter: A looking glass of sorts at the degradation of slavery. What's your name? Kunta. Reporter: And the dignity one man and family reclaimed. There will be another day. "Roots" was a seminal event in our nation's history. Reporter: The actor was a 19-year-old college kid when he got the role of his life. The story had never been told before from the point of view of the africans. You are kunta. Reporter: Now almost 40 years later, it's back. Reimagined and remade by the history channel. The new cast full of Hollywood star power, but the starring role, kunta, played by malachi Kirby. One of the biggest things I took from playing this is where his strength came from is in knowing where he was from. Tobet. It's been a long time coming N this moment. Reporter: They originated the role and met onset in Africa first. It is an important story. It is an important story. Reporter: Burton is the co-executive producer of the new series and the two men formed a close bond. To be given the opportunity to portray him is a huge responsibility. I can't imagine doing what it is he did. But you did it first? But it's easy to be the first in that sense. Because then no one has anything to compare you to. Reporter: Much like the character he plays, Kirby found inspiration by drawing on his own roots. This felt very much like my story. My last name is Kirby. I'm from Africa, but my name is not african. Reporter: When it aired, the country stood still. An unheard of 85% of American households caught a part of the series. I think it's important that you saw this picture. Reporter: Sparking debate in classrooms and in homes. The black people were trying to accomplish that men for equal. It tore the blinders off. We could not go back to the way we were before. I remember I went to a predominantly white high school, and I was pissed going to school. And we had to work through it. Many of the character's names made it onto real birth D certificates. I wanted to name her ebony. He said no, dissy. The name of the daughter. A young immigrant couple living in New York at that time decided to give the name to their own daughter. I love it. I think it's powerful and impactful. Reporter: Powerful how? My family is here and I am deep rooted in the commitment to family. I instilled it in my children. Kizzy married, a mother of two. We brought the spire family in for a private screening of roots. The pride it revealed, and the pain all reremembered. It's a lot to learn from. Reporter: For this family and many others, the remake seems especially relevant now as the death of Freddie gray, Michael brown, Sandra brand have rig noted the debate over race and injustice. We will get better and worse and get better again, I hope. Reporter: This woman is Kizzy in the remake. If you have a touch, just one, I'll kill you. The key to that is continuing to shed light, continuing to tell truth, continuing to correct mistruths, and continuing to listen. I'm a fair man, Kizzy. Reporter: The slave owner in the movie. Roots may have taken place years ago, but it's a political mirror to today. Reporter: The other portrayed by a newcomer. You crave jubilation, revolution, oh, glory. That's what you came to see. There's not a single person who didn't feel it was important to get it right. It was never just a job. It was so much bigger than that. Reporter: And from his watchful gaze as we spoke to the cast, Burton seems confident the story is in good hands. Reporter: Here's a question I can't imagine anyone better suited to answer than you. Why. Why remake this classic? Because there's a whole new generation of kids out there for whom the original was old, and was dated, and so in order for them to get the power of the story, it had to be retold for them in a language that they could answer. Reporter: The power of this uniquely American story, the lessons learned and those still to come. I think that's the value of story telling. It gives us a context for who we are, why we're here and what we're doing while we're here. Reporter: "Roots" premiers on the history channel memorial day over four consecutive nights. The history channel is part owned by ABC. And next, 500 questions, a game

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