When slavery and the Holocaust visited American living rooms

Aired on television within months of each other, 40 years ago ‘Roots’ and ‘Holocaust’ broke cultural taboos by depicting some of history’s worst atrocities

Reporter at The Times of Israel

LeVar Burton in the 1977 television miniseries 'Roots,' and Meryl Streep in 1978's 'Holocaust' miniseries (ABC and NBC, respectively)
LeVar Burton in the 1977 television miniseries 'Roots,' and Meryl Streep in 1978's 'Holocaust' miniseries (ABC and NBC, respectively)

Four decades ago, a pair of television miniseries shattered widespread reluctance to discuss two of history’s most traumatic chapters: the role of slavery in building America, and the Nazis’ genocide of European Jewry.

The miniseries genre that blossomed in North America and Europe during the 1970s took splashy, historic novels, and transformed them into consecutive evenings of “event” television. The casts were packed with far more stars than today’s productions, in part because the format allowed for numerous cameos and opportunities for actors to play against type.

In 1974, a Canadian miniseries called “The National Dream” mixed drama with railroad construction. That same year, the Leon Uris book “QB VII” was turned into a miniseries, with Anthony Hopkins appearing as a man on trial for conducting Nazi-era medical experiments. By the late 1970s, everyone from “Jesus of Nazareth” to the vampires of “Salem’s Lot” had been serialized, in addition to several of history’s bloodiest wars.

A scene from the miniseries ‘Roots’ with LeVar Burton, aired in 1977 (ABC)

Universally regarded as the first miniseries blockbuster, “Roots: The Story of An American Family,” aired in 1977. As many viewers’ first encounter with the cruelties of slavery, the 12-hour ABC production was watched by more than 80% of TV households, breaking several audience records.

At the center of “Roots” was the character Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton. Captured by slave-hunters in the Gambia, he was brought to American plantations rife with violence, torture, and the destruction of families. The frank depiction of slavery was a revelation for many viewers, and university courses based on the subject proliferated. Also of lasting import, “Roots” sparked deep interest in tracing family bloodlines.

Amidst the acclaim, “Roots” author Alex Haley became enmeshed in controversy when his narrative of being descended from Kunta Kinte was called into question. The author was accused of faking sources and stealing from another novel, “The African”. All this might not have mattered so much if Haley, in his appendix for “Roots,” had not specifically anchored the 6-generation saga to his own research, including oral histories and documents.

A scene from the miniseries ‘Roots’ with LeVar Burton, aired in 1977 (ABC)

Ultimately, Haley’s response was to declare that “Roots” was a work of “faction” — a mix of facts and fiction.

“Get six books about the Battle of Gettysburg and you’d think it was six different battles,” said Haley during an interview conducted before his death in 1992.

“The best any of us can do is do the best research we can and then try to create around that,” said Haley. “With ‘Roots,’ I worked my head off to research everything and still a lot of the book is fiction. How do I know what Chicken George said over a hundred years ago? I made it up.”

Recreating what shouldn’t be revived?

On April 16, 1978, more than a year after “Roots” altered the landscape of television, the miniseries “Holocaust” aired on NBC. Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky — one of several directors who worked on “Roots” — the 4-part miniseries clocked in at more than 9 hours.

Prior to “Holocaust,” most cinematic depictions of the Shoah had avoided staging atrocity scenes. The miniseries broke ground by “recreating” — for instance — a barn set ablaze with people inside, the execution pits of Babi Yar, and victims in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. At several points in the film, SS officers viewed slides of actual historical photographs taken of Holocaust atrocities, blurring lines between the archival record and TV melodrama.

A scene from the 1978 television miniseries ‘Holocaust,’ with Meryl Streep at far right (NBC)

Centered on a Berlin Jewish family named Weiss, the miniseries also followed a German counterpart family, the Dorfs, headed by a Nazi official meant to echo Adolf Eichmann. Members of the star-crossed families cross paths throughout the war, sometimes not even noticing each other.

As opposed to “Roots” the year before, some Americans reacted to “Holocaust” with bitter protest. Particularly among survivors, there were objections to the film’s melodramatic treatment of genocide, including the blaring music score. There was also the issue of an inappropriate juxtaposition of TV commercials with depictions of the Shoah, including an ad for Lysol that appeared after a character referred to unpleasant odors emanating from Auschwitz’s crematoria.

In the 1978 television miniseries ‘Holocaust,’ Jews are marched to the border of Poland (NBC)

Viewing “Holocaust” as having misappropriated their own experiences, a group of Connecticut-area survivors channeled their frustration into forming what became the Fortunoff Video Archive, the first major depository of survivor testimony. Across the pond in West Germany, airings of the miniseries produced a sea-change in public perception of the war years, leading to a lifting of the statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes.

Both “Roots” and “Holocaust” helped deepen interest in the past, including within families. Forty years later, few films about either slavery or the Holocaust have achieved the stature of these two productions: TV behemoths that shaped the transmission of history.

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