Arts

To LeVar Burton, the legacy of racism is as potent now as then

LeVar Burton (right) with Malachi Kirby, who plays Kunta Kinte — the role originated by Burton — in the remake of “Roots.”

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for History

LeVar Burton (right) with Malachi Kirby, who plays Kunta Kinte — the role originated by Burton — in the remake of “Roots.”

LeVar Burton is revisiting his “Roots.” This Memorial Day, almost 40 years after ABC’s original eight-episode slavery saga exploded into an unprecedented (and still unmatched) ratings phenomenon, the veteran actor will watch as audiences reunite with Kunta Kinte and his descendants in the form of an A&E Networks-pioneered remake, which he executive-produced. We spoke with Burton by phone about his new “Roots,” the original’s legacy, and crafting a remake relevant to the racially charged cultural climate of today.

Q. “Roots” is days away. What is it like to bring this remake into the world?

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A. It’s pretty exciting. A lot of work has gone on the part of an army of people, and I’m exceedingly proud of the result. I cannot wait for people to see it. As you can well imagine, it is daunting — terrifying in fact — to have contemplated taking this task on, and I think we nailed it. All of the reasons that made it make sense for us to revisit this story at this particular time caused us to be very mindful of what we were doing, and how we were doing it. The performances are amazing, and the new history that we were able to take advantage of enriches the story and gives it more depth than I believe even the original had. The timing couldn’t be better in terms of what’s going on in America, and our awareness of the vestiges of slavery, the legacies of racism, are still alive and well in this country. We’re not in a post-racial America at all, and we have so much work to do.

Q. Why did “Roots,” specifically, need to be remade for this generation?

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A. It’s needed now. The conversation that was begun 40 years ago serves as a platform and a foundation for a conversation that needs to continue. Until we are all on the same page about the state of race relations in America, and the ways in which institutional racism still creates inequality and inequity in this society, and until we are successful in doing everything within our power to rectify, then the experiment of America continues to be a failure. “Roots” is our origin story. It’s America’s origin story, where race is concerned. In order to really ground ourselves in the necessary conversations, we have to go back to the beginning, to provide context and understanding for where we are now. And if the story of “Roots” was going to be able to make a contribution to the current culture in America, and this current conversation about how we make this country better, then this story had to be retold.

Q. The original “Roots” resonated so strongly. To what do you attribute that impact, and could a remake achieve something similar?

A. The original was grand, and it was profound, and it was relevant in a revolutionary way. I don’t expect for us to achieve the kinds of numbers, in terms of viewing audience, that the original did, at least in this country — maybe worldwide we could get 100 million people to watch. But the conversation is essential.

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Q. Beyond discussion of the series, what form will that conversation take?

A. There’s a whole curriculum for schools that will be rolling out post-premiere. I’m really excited about that and the opportunity to take this conversation into our nation’s classrooms. In an era when there’s an effort by textbooks to reframe slavery as forced labor, we have to tell the truth to our children. The state of Texas buys more textbooks than any state in the union and as such holds more control over the content of those schoolbooks than any other state, and there is an agenda afoot to minimize . . . and change the message of what slavery was. And that is simply not OK.

Q. Race relations is a crucial component of the news cycle today, but so many people still seek to diminish or downplay aspects of that conversation.

A. Exactly. And my wish is for this conversation to be held in a context that’s absent the deadly elements of guilt and shame. These are emotions that really prevent us from moving forward in the conversation, from getting to the nitty-gritty, from making real and substantive change. We’re held back by the guilt of our forefathers and the shame of having been enslaved in an institution that was so brutal, destructive, and debilitating. If we can all rise above those base responses and meet one another eye-to-eye, acknowledging finally that what has gone on in the past has contributed mightily to where we are in the present, then — and only then — we will be able to make some progress. We have to confront the messy ugliness of history, recognize where that ugliness still persists today, and stamp it out.

Q. Do you feel that the original hasn’t led to the sea change you hoped for in conversation?

A. No, it hasn’t, but it did create a sea change in consciousness. Before “Roots,” America told itself the story that slavery was a necessary economic engine. “Roots” made it impossible to think about slavery without thinking about the human factor. “Roots” put a face on the institution of slavery, and America had to begin to contemplate the cost of that decision.

Q. And remaking it will only serve to further that awakening of consciousness.

A. The airing of “Roots” this time around gives us a chance to build on the foundation of the first. And if we are able to come to this conversation, both sides of the color line, without the guilt and shame, we’re gonna be OK. As Kendrick Lamar says, “We gon’ be all right.”

Interview was edited and condensed. Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com, or on Twitter at @i_feldberg.
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