[INTERVIEW] LeVar Burton on Why ‘Roots’ Still Matters

[INTERVIEW] LeVar Burton on Why 'Roots' Still Matters

The actor reflects on the miniseries' legacy and why he'll go "toe to toe" with Quentin Tarantino

by Brooke Obie, February 4, 2013

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[INTERVIEW] LeVar Burton on Why ‘Roots’ Still Matters

LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte in 'Roots'

In January 1977, the ground-breaking television miniseries Roots aired and captivated audiences all across America for six nights straight. In honor of this iconic phenomenon, PBS will feature a behind-the-scenes look at Roots in an episode of its hit series, Pioneers of Television airing on February 5 at 8 p.m EST. EBONY.com caught up with star LeVar Burton and discussed the legacy of Roots and why his 18-year-old daughter still hasn’t seen it, the Quentin Tarantino Django controversy and the state of Black America today.

EBONY: What’s it like for you, reflecting on your experience on Roots more than 35 years later?

LeVar Burton: I’m still proud. I believe it holds up. I really do. And it’s interesting: BET ran it over the Christmas holiday and a lot of people saw it. I follow a good number of people on Twitter and there was a lot of chatter about people watching Roots and showing it to children and grandchildren who hadn’t seen it before.  So Roots has very much been a topic of mind for me lately simply because of the awe. And then on Christmas Day, Django Unchained came out and started a whole new discussion about slavery, so Roots is very much on the minds of people at the beginning of the year, so it’s been a pretty fun month.

EBONY: What did you think of Django Unchained?

LB: I did not know that it was a comedy. I was unprepared. I saw it Christmas Day. I had heard about it, I didn’t do much reading about it. I knew that there was a controversy over language but I did not think it would be so funny. I thought Sam Jackson was brilliant. And the acting was superb — Leo, Jamie. Quentin Tarantino does very well this sort of adolescent fantasy on steroids. For whatever reason, Quentin really does enjoy putting people of color in his movies, so you’ve got to bless him for that.

EBONY: Speaking of that, one of the topics many of the actors in Roots discussed in the PBS special was their surprise at the lack of job opportunities they had after being a part of such a phenomenon. But you’ve been able to be a part of three iconic series, including Star Trek and Reading Rainbow. Why do you think your career has had such longevity? That’s big for an actor in general, let alone a Black actor.

LB: The biggest surprise to me is the way my life has turned out. The odds were really stacked against me. I’ve never really been asked this question before. The role call is deep for actors who begin young and their lives as adult don’t turn out [so well]. Right? I can go down the list but I won’t. So, the odds were stacked against me, is what I’m saying. My life could’ve turned out much differently and that is the biggest surprise to me— that I am still here 35 years later and still vital. Roots really was only the beginning for me. That’s rare.

One of the things that I’m excited about is there is a whole generation of Black people who are seeing Roots. It’s a really interesting time in history because my 18-year-old hasn’t seen it, doesn’t want to see it.  For her, Roots, slavery, and for her generation, what my parent’s generation and my generation, what we have sacrificed is for them to feel uncomfortable to discuss these issues because they don’t matter to this generation anymore. This is the first generation where race really isn’t a freaking issue—a good deal of them really feel that way. But Roots being seen by a whole other audience of young Black kids gives me hope that there’s still a whole lot of them we can reach. We need to reach them with the message that you can do anything you want in your life. It’s up to you.

EBONY: It does seem like there are a great deal of people in this generation who do not believe race is an issue at all, but is there any danger to that thought process, considering travesties like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis —

LB: There is a danger to that. What is says to me is that we haven’t done a good job as parents of educating our children as to the dangers that still exist in this world. We sort of lulled ourselves into a false sense of security in that. Because if Trayvon Martin[‘s death] can still happen, it can still happen to any of our kids. So, my guess is, as parents, our generation of elders, we did a terrible job of preparing them.

EBONY: From that consciousness, then, is there any danger to a film like Django that glosses over the impact that slavery has had on African Americans? Does it encourage the mindset that, if Barack Obama can be president, then Black people as a whole are okay. If Django can whip some overseers, then everything is fine?

LB: As far as Django is concerned, you have to consider what it is. Django is a piece of entertainment. It’s a fantasy.  In fact, there’s a specific genre of literature called revenge fantasy. Django is not history. Django is not Roots. Let’s not get it twisted. Roots is the story of a history of a country. It’s a lot different.

EBONY: I don’t know if you’ve heard this or not, but Quentin Tarantino actually did an interview with EBONY where he basically said Roots was unrealistic —

LB: You know what? I’ll go to toe-to-toe with Mr. Quentin Tarantino on that any day. I’ll go toe-to-toe with him. You know, I respect him as a filmmaker. He’s given a lot of Black people jobs over the years in his movies, I’ll go toe-to-toe with you on that, Mr. Tarantino. You come and tell me that Roots is unrealistic, Mr. Tarantino, and I’d love to have that conversation. I invite Tarantino to a sit-down because I’d like to understand what he means by that. That’s very interesting. They can sell tickets to that! [laughs]

EBONY: Is it a goal of yours to get your daughter to watch Roots?

LB: No. She’ll watch it when it’s time for her. It will always be there for her, and I can take that to the bank. I could stop today, if I wanted to.  If that was the only truth I wanted to focus on for the rest of my life, that Roots would be there, that I have done something of value, I could stop today. But, for me, Roots set a standard and showed me an opportunity to teach people [through art] and I took that idea very much to heart. And we have created a society right now, there is a sense of violence to this country. That’s why I say, Mr. Tarantino you’re a lovely filmmaker, but what are your movies about? They are, as I say, adolescent fantasy and, it’s a sort of fetish for people of color. I’ll go ahead and say it: it’s a fetish for Black people.

EBONY: You were saying in the PBS episode that it took you a week for you to be able to film that famous scene where Kunta Kinte is being whipped until he says his name is Toby.  What was your process like during that week for you to be able to get through that scene? What were you going through that week?

LB: Ultimately, I could not get used to the idea of just standing there and letting someone hurl a whip at me. It was just psychologically difficult. So, it took bringing the guy back and me getting to know him [the actor who played the overseer]. It was a trust issue. It was an issue of me getting to know [the actor who played the overseer] and I just didn’t trust anybody. [laughs] I had to learn to trust that guy.

EBONY: So what was that conversation like with the actor who played the overseer in order for you to feel comfortable?

LB: You know, I don’t remember the conversation but I do remember the feeling.  I remember feeling incredibly well. There’s something very basic and elementary about danger, when you put yourself in danger. I’ve done it several times in different forms: skydiving, walking on hot coals. I understand the bit of the psychological dynamic of danger. And so what I recall is there was a lot of unspoken communication going on and it was really a process of me watching who he was and spending time with him and getting a sense of who he was and knowing he had a really good heart. He had no malice in him. I had to learn these things about him before I could stand up there and turn my back on him without reacting before the lash landed.  That was the problem the first time we had attempted to film the scene, I was much too jumpy.

EBONY: That’s so interesting, then, that the network decided to have you and the actor who played the overseer come on Good Morning America the morning after that episode of Roots aired just to show everyone that there was no malice between the two of you in real life to stave off any racial unrest the viewers back in 1977 might have had.

LB: Oh yeah, it was really that deep. Talk to someone who was alive back then. Talk to someone who was in high school when Roots first came on. [Laughs]

EBONY: Why do you think Roots still resonates so deeply and still has such a strong impact on people?

LB: The wounds run deep. And it is the sheer injustice of slavery that would be enough to incite one’s fire and anger. But to have it done to one’s own people, one’s own ancestors, that just makes it much more upsetting.

EBONY: We gloss the injustice of slavery in and of itself, whether women were raped, whether slaves were beaten to death, whether children were sold away from their families, just owning people in and of itself is enough to enrage a decent human being. And so, we have the Founders of this country, all of whom owned slaves, being honored and revered still to this day with maybe a side-note about how they also owned slaves.  How do we in the 21st century respond to that?

LB: I think with compassion, for ourselves as well as for the people in question. America hasn’t really successfully healed the wounds that were inflicted into this culture, into this society as a by-product of slavery. We’ve just never really successfully dealt with that. And one television mini-series can’t get it done, never was going to get it done. It’s going to take some real, honest, roll-up-your sleeves work for America to really put that part of our common history of slavery and guilt and the insidious ways front-and-center, which makes it difficult to deal with because everybody thinks it’s ok now, when it’s not.

Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.

 
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