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‘Roots’ Then & Now With Louis Gossett Jr.

The original Roots miniseries came out before many of us were born, but I’m sure that we are very much aware of the impact of the controversial narrative that detailed the horrors of American slavery. Released in 1977, Roots exceeded expectations when it won over the nation by depicting a very authentic story of how Africans Americans came to be in the country.

Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr. was one of many legendary stars lucky enough to land a role in the historical miniseries, an experience he still remembers four decades later.

“[Roots] was like lightening in a bottle,” the star tells JET. “They were afraid that they had blew the Southern market, and the opposite happened.”

On Memorial Day, the History Channel launched a four-part remake of the iconic 1977 series, which brought in 5.3 million viewers.

With the reboot looming, JET spoke with Gossett about the impact of Roots, then and now, and how he is personally working to put an end to racism.

JET: In 1977 you landed the role of Fiddler in Roots. How did that happen?

Louis Gossett Jr: They picked a whole bunch of actors. We didn’t know who was going to be in what [role]. Everybody got those parts, and when I read Roots, I wanted to play Kunta Kinte’s father and they gave me the part of the Uncle Tom. So I said, “Okay. I’m gonna do it.” I started looking and I realized that the part was more than an Uncle Tom. Fiddler made Kunta Kinte the man that’s celebrated today.

JET: It sounds like you had to rationalize accepting the role.

Gossett: I went through a hell of a lot. I had to make sense of it as best as I could and do the research. [I concluded that] they had to survive–those guys who were in slavery. They had to survive and be able to keep that African feeling. In America as they were, [Fiddler] had to show Kunta Kinte how to survive and stay relevant. Today, we are totally relevant because of people like Fiddler.

JET: That’s a very different perception from the majority.

Gossett: We had to learn how to survive and get back to our “roots” today because we survived all of that. [We survived] the Middle Passage, we survived slavery, Reconstruction, segregation; we survived it all. All the way to the first Black president of the United States and we are surviving in society. You can’t really survive without our input today and our young people don’t really know those lessons. Those lessons stopped somewhere a couple of generations ago. [We need to] put those lessons back again.

JET: Why do you think Roots was so well received?

Gossett: It was a pleasant surprise. The story had to be told once and for all. It stopped television, it stopped industries, it stopped the movie industry, everybody stopped everything to watch Roots. It was all relevant. So now it will continue on. I call it the God shot. Something that needed to be told around the world because it’s a piece of history. It’s a miracle. For us to know about our roots. We can talk about people in America, the French, the Civil War all the way back. You ask an Englishman about his roots, people from Sweden and the Vikings back to the Roman Empire and they can tell you. But ours, our people don’t know. That has to be brought back to today and Roots is a wonderful resource to understand how deep their culture is and how important it is to contribute to that culture.

Fiddler (Forest Whittaker) and Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) in the "Roots" remake.

Fiddler (Forest Whittaker) and Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) in the “Roots” remake.

JET: With the racial climate of America today, do you anticipate the Roots remake having any kind of impact on that? If so, to what degree?

Gossett: People are coming to the surface thanks to the internet and social media. Everybody will be exposed to everything and they’ll have to make a decision. If we can add that holistic culture to Roots being shown again, we’re back to the bottom line. That we’re all one people on this planet. We have something better to do than racism; we’ve got to get rid of all of that and take care of our planet together. The timing is perfect.

JET: Sounds like you may be touching on some of the work you do through your nonprofit, the Eracism Foundation.

Gossett: I learned my lessons from Dr. King and Nelson Madela. Now if anybody had any reason to be upset it would’ve been Mandela and all of those particular people. He came out with a smile on his face. He didn’t come out to get revenge. There’s a bigger picture. I needed to step out to these young people and show them how to impact society at a young age. To show them there is no superiority. To inject “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all,” which we have in our Declaration of Independence, but it has to be global. We all need to be together to save one another. Try to create a society where we live without racism. That’s what the foundation seeks to do.

JET: Where do you see us going in the future? Do you see an America without racism?

Gossett: You know it will be challenging, but we have to work together in order to keep racism from getting in our way. Like it or not, it’s going to get down to a minimum because we’re going to have to survive together. If we don’t take care of this planet and one another, we all may as well be in a 747 airplane. It’s about to crash because people inside of the plane are fighting over who’s going to be in first class. All these riots and wars don’t mean anything if we’re not together to save ourselves. The only way to win this challenge is to get rid of the things that make up our differences. You get taught racism. Maybe the next generation will be less of a problem.

For more info on Louis Gossett Jr.’s Eracism Foundation visit www.eracismfoundation.org.