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Return to Roots

The controversial African-American ancestral tale is being retold... partly by me

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

Overwhelmed by my enthusiasm for film-making and lacking caution, as usual, I agreed to direct an episode ( there are four, each 90 minutes) of a remake of the TV series of Roots. The original series premiered in 1977 and reached an audience of 130 million.

I should have been more wary when I read the script as it had a large cast, three big action scenes and a double hanging. The networks (History channel, A & E and a couple of others) dodged my questions about the shooting period until the contract was signed. It was then revealed I had 24 days to do the 90 minute film. I had more time than that to make Driving Miss Daisy, I protested, (fruitlessly) – which mostly consisted of an old couple talking in a kitchen.

Why re-make it? This was the first question I asked the producer, Mark Wolper, the son of the producer of the original series. He replied that he showed the old series to his teenage sons, who were unimpressed, regarding it as dated and bland. Wolper then determined to produce a new version – of a story he considers everyone should know – for a 2016 audience.

Roots is adapted from a book by Alex Haley (1921-92), an African-American author. He claims to have researched his own family history back to an ancestor named Kunta Kinte who was enslaved in the Gambia in1767 and transported to America. The story then continues through several generations, finishing, after the end of slavery in America with the Civil War (1861-65).

Being unable to trace my own ancestors back further than a grandfather born in the east end of London in 1876 I was curious that Haley managed to track family back 250 years – without the help of any written records. I was not the only one dubious about his achievement. A novelist named Harold Courlander took Haley to court claiming that chunks of Roots were stolen from his novel The African. Haley, he said, had stolen ‘language, thought, attitudes, incidents , situations, plot and character’. The judge ruled that plagiarism indeed took place. Haley made a financial settlement of an undisclosed sum.

Plagiarised or not, (though ‘not’ seems unlikely) the story is an exciting one and must accurately reflect the experiences of many slaves. My own episode takes place just before and during the Civil War, an era for which a lot of research is available, including a number of published slave memoirs. In addition, we were able to film in surviving plantation houses and actual slave quarters. Many of the vast plantation houses are now restored, but upkeep is expensive, so most can be hired for weddings or function as sybaritic bed and breakfast places. Slave quarters – also mostly restorations, I suspect, are on the itineries of the tour groups which are a major source of income for the New Orleans area.

I think the producers were anxious to get African-American directors for all four episodes, but only managed to engage two (Mario van Peebles and Thomas Carter) as a number of others were on other films or weren’t interested in directing a remake. With some reluctance, on the part of the network chiefs, this essentially American story is being told in part by two Australians, Phillip Noyce (episode 1) and myself. In addition, the chief cameraman is another Australian, the gifted Peter Menzies jnr, who charmingly calls everyone, cast and crew alike, ‘mate’.

New Orleans is an odd place to be based for Roots. Most of Louisiana is Mississippi delta so is flat and swampy. In addition the story is set in states further north. The reason it wasn’t shot in Georgia or Carolina is simply because Louisiana offers large rebates to film production companies and this has attracted a lot of production over the past few years. Even films set in New York city or Washington have been filmed in New Orleans. Evidently, this largesse is about to cease as a new administration has decided it’s uneconomic. Someone has worked out that the rebates leaving the state are greater than the amount producers spend on production.

Misled by movies set in the south and plays by Tennessee Williams I was expecting the New Orleans accent to be full of ‘you-all’s’ and ‘honey chile’ etc, but most of the inhabitants sound like low class New Yorkers. The reason for this, it was explained to me, is because thousands of dock workers came from New York over a hundred years ago to build the port of New Orleans. Riding in a taxi I gave an address and the driver asked ‘are you going to see the pork’? The ‘pork’ ? What pork could I be wanting to see? ‘Pork?’ I said, ‘what pork?’ ‘The city pork’, he replied, convinced he was talking to a cretin, ‘the trees, the lakes, the gardens’. Once I realized any ‘a’ was pronounced as an ‘o’ I had no further problems with language.

Outside of New Orleans (and our locations were often 180 klms or so from the city, necessitating a 4.30 am departure) the local accents are less unexpected, though there can still be moments of confusion. ‘Error’, for instance, in normal English is a mistake, but not in rural Louisiana, where it is a projectile ie ‘Ah fahd an error into the air, it fell to earth ah know not wheah…’

I enjoyed being greeted by some of the crew members each morning with the phrase ‘Are you tolerable?’ – which doesn’t mean ‘can I put up with you today?’ but rather ‘Are you well? Is everything going ok?’

The most elaborate scene I had to film was the notorious battle of Fort Pillow, in which the Rebel army besieged a hill top fort manned by Northern troops, many of whom were African American ex-slaves. There is a lot of controversy about events following the surrender but it is generally accepted that the Rebel army then executed perhaps as many as 300 of the black soldiers.

Fort Pillow is still a sensitive issue in the south and we had some difficulty in finding all the white extras we needed to play the Rebel soldiers.

Finding a hill to fortify for the scene was a major problem in the vast Mississippi delta, but a resourceful location scout finally managed it. Ida Random, the distinguished and cheerful Scottish production designer (her credits include Rain Man, Wyatt Earp and On Golden Pond) set to work building sandbag fortifications complete with five working cannons. For three days we re-created the events of 12 April, 1864 with hundreds of white men firing period rifles loaded with blanks, while our black cannon crews shelled them as they ran up the slope.

I enjoyed watching them laughing together as they rested, covered in mud (real) and blood (fake) after a take, with bottles of cold water and cakes made and distributed by a nice lady who lived locally and baked them for ‘all the boys’.

I’m now in Los Angeles working on the editing with a talented editor, David Beatty, who I am relying on to cover up all my mistakes. The cut is nearly finished and soon will be pounced on by network executives . At this point Directors always fear, sometimes with justification, that their work is going to be altered. Still – I’ll be in good company. Darryl F. Zanuck not only recut sections of John Ford’s masterly My Darling Clementine but had some scenes reshot by another director.

Bruce Beresford is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia
Roots the miniseries will air in 2017

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