When the original Roots was broadcast in 1977, it was more than a television hit. With a finale watched in more than half of all U.S. homes with a TV, it led to not only a noticeable shift in daily life–given its eight-nights-in-a-row broadcast schedule in a pre-DVR era–but also to a new conversation about race in America.
TIME explored the phenomenon in its Feb. 14, 1977, cover story (which can be read in full at time.com/vault). The reasons for Roots’ success were, unsurprisingly, tangled. Critics had tepid reactions to the dramatization of Alex Haley’s book about his family’s background, and some scholars picked at its chronology–but that didn’t seem to matter. Perhaps the key was that in a moment of flux after the dramatic civil rights progress of the 1960s, Roots offered a hint at what the next step might be: pride and a sense of history for black Americans whose own family pasts had been erased, and a way for white Americans to confront the fact that it was their history as well.
Whatever the exact cause for its success, Roots was, as Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan told TIME back then, “the right time, the right story and the right form.”
This appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of TIME.
- LGBTQ Reality TV Takes on a Painful Moment
- Column: How the World Must Respond to AI
- What the Debt Ceiling Deal Means for Student Loan Borrowers
- India’s Female Wrestlers Are Saying #MeToo
- 7 Ways to Get Better at Small Talk
- Florence Pugh Might Just Save the Movie Star From Extinction
- The End of Succession
- Scientists Get Closer to Harnessing Solar Power From Space