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

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.

Django is not history. Django is not Roots. Let’s not get it twisted. Roots is the story of a history of a country.

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.

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