I’ve made only a few changes in what is becoming my “inauguration special.”
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On Sunday evening, January 23, 1977 — forty four years ago — what were one hundred and forty million Americans (half the population of the U.S.) doing? From personal experience, I can assure you that hardly anyone had gone to the movies; and it wasn’t because Jimmy Carter had just been inaugurated only a few days before. Only one very lonely man had bought a ticket to see Rudy Ray Moore in the Blaxploitation flick, The Human Tornado. It was the A-movie, along with The Muthers, that we were showing as part of a double feature, at the St. George Theatre that night. Well, if the post-Nixon era wasn’t the reason our theater was empty, what was?
For eight consecutive nights, from the 23rd to the 30th of January, Roots, the most widely-watched miniseries in American television history, had everybody who owned a TV chained, metaphorically speaking, to the glowing box. I’m one of a minority of Americans alive in 1977, who failed to watch that night, or any of the subsequent seven nights, even a single episode of the series, based on Alex Haley’s best-selling novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The book followed several generations of enslaved African Americans, beginning with the capture of a young man in West Africa, Kunta Kinte reputedly Haley’s ancestor. Roots changed the way many White Americans thought about slavery, while at the same time legitimizing the family chronicles of many Black families. Despite the fact that I missed the experience of viewing it as it aired, it affected my life — and the business I was failing at — profoundly.
Television, ironically, achieved over the course of those eight nights what we in our grand old movie palace had failed to do. We’d been trying to bring our White suburban and Black urban audiences together to watch movies — not an easy feat in a neighborhood which resented upscale whites, some of whom were afraid to drive to our side of the island. It didn’t help that, after winter set in, our beloved St. George Theater had no heat, thanks to a landlord who was actively trying to evict us. Then, in that most desperate winter—for eight long days, while Roots aired — we were completely vacant. Our scant winter audience, those few brave souls accustomed to sitting in their hats and coats in a cold auditorium, had stayed home in front of their own televisions.
VCRs existed, but many people didn’t have one, so when a program aired, you watched it — or missed it. And everyone knew that Roots was not to be missed, a game-changing event. The last night set a nationwide Nielsen Ratings record for the largest audience ever to view a televised show. That record would not be bested until 1983, when M*A*S*H aired for the last time. Roots was obviously the ultimate triumph of television over movies; that had been coming for some time, but it’s impact was much larger. Except for me, the managers and skeleton crews of other theaters (most of which had the good sense to simply close), and whoever else was unlucky enough to work nights, everyone watched, as the forbidden story of slavery unfolded.
A scandal some years later, would call into question some of the details of Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale; was it fiction or non-fiction? Inaccurate or not, it was a story that needed to be told.
Roots opened the door to a lot of African American genetic research. In the aftermath of the television broadcast, more than 250 colleges and universities began offering courses on the tracing of African American genealogy and the history of slavery. Although sequels have been made, as well as a recent “re-imagining” of the original production by A&E—which is extremely moving—it was the original that flipped the table on the American saga of slavery, finally making Gone With the Wind not just stale, but a major squirm for many people.
I was glad, the afternoon after each of those eight long nights, to hear our staffers, Black and White boys and girls who loved and trusted one another, some of whom had been off the previous night, buzzing about this new phenomenon, ancestry. It took some of the sting out of going broke.