In this week’s issue of New York Magazine, Frank Rich writes about how for all of the praise that 12 Years a Slave is an important film, it is unlikely to change entrenched racist opinions, just as neither Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Roots, nor Obama’s election has ushered in the mythic post-racial America. In light of this, New York’s Eric Benson spoke to Roots star Levar Burton, who discussed his admiration for Steve McQueen’s film and his suspicion that, like Burton’s iconic miniseries, 12 Years may be unlikely to change minds.
You got your big break when you were cast in Roots as Kunta Kinte, a West African man who is captured and brought to America as a slave. During production, was there a sense that Roots was more than just a television mini-series?
You have to remember we’re looking back through the lens of a 19-year-old. I had never faced any of the challenges the veterans—the Cicely Tysons, the Lou Gossetts—had in terms of finding work. But what I was aware of was that all of the veterans thought that this material was special. All of them were very clear that telling the story of slavery in America through the eyes of the African had never been done before. It wasn’t Gone With the Wind. It wasn’t just glossing over the human costs. Roots wasn’t just art for art’s sake. It was art as a way of moving the culture forward.
And do you think Roots did that?
I like to think so. Roots became a part of the fabric of American culture. After Roots, we all had a similar frame of reference and context for what we talk about when we talk about slavery in America. You have to acknowledge that there’s a wound before it can even begin to get better.
You’ve spoken of a “post-Roots disappointment,” that the series didn’t actually change Hollywood and that this galvanizing cultural moment didn’t fully pan out. After all, if most Americans watched parts of Roots, it meant that civil-rights leaders were tuning in alongside avowed racists—
Who were watching Roots and having a profound human experience of identification and compassion that was probably new. And then you have the rubber-band effect of those record numbers of viewership snapping back to red and blue, right? That has been ultimately the path of least resistance to retrench and go back to old ways of thinking rather than to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work.
And you see us as retrenched now?
Look at the rubber-band effect from the night of the inauguration of Barack Obama to today. There was this enormous sense of finally. Well, finally what? Finally, we have a black man in the White House who at least on some level has an understanding of the black experience in America. But that in no way makes this a post-racial society.
And now we have 12 Years a Slave. Critics have called it a breakthrough for showing the brutality of slavery and for finally vanquishing the myth of Gone With the Wind. But Roots was supposed to have done that. What have we been doing for the past 36 years?
That’s a very good question, and I wish I had an answer for you. But I don’t. We would love to forget, I think. We would love to go back to the fairy tale, to the fantasy of Tara. But it’s too easy to try and erase the sins of the past and claim, “That wasn’t me.” We are all capable of unspeakable horror. We are all capable of unthinkable brutality. We have to be ever vigilant and continue to remind ourselves of our propensity for monstrosity. And there’s a lot of resistance to revisiting this issue. I’ve heard disquieting chatter on both sides of the color line. Why do we have to revisit this again? Well, we have to revisit this again because all of us have forgotten!
12 Years will never have the viewership of Roots. Do you think it’ll still have some impact?
Steve McQueen is a brilliant storyteller, and he’s taken a very difficult subject and told it in a very accessible, however difficult, way. Now, I wish more people were going to see it. It’s going to play really well in New York and L.A. and some other cities, and I hope that it plays incredibly well overseas as well. It’ll be interesting if anybody is bothered to book a theater in certain locales—certain territories, as they say.
What did you think of the last slavery film to have a big cultural footprint, Django Unchained? Quentin Tarantino argued it was one of the few slave movies about black empowerment.
[Chuckles] Yeah, well …
Do I sense skepticism in your voice?
[More chuckles] Yes. Django Unchained is a fantasy, let’s be clear. And when Quentin Tarantino says that Django is more real than Roots, I call bullshit. I got nothing against him, but don’t go there, okay? Don’t go there, Quentin. Too many people who look like me bled and died for you to have the opportunity to satirize the slave narrative. There’s a place for satire in culture. Taken at face value, as a piece of satire, I went and enjoyed it. It was fun. Let’s just not get it twisted. Django was not real.
In another 36 years, are we going to be discussing another brutal slavery film that critics hail as finally vanquishing the myth of Gone With the Wind?
At the screening of 12 Years a Slave, no less a personage than Russell Simmons told me that Roots was being remade. And my initial reaction was, Why? But, look, the bottom line for me is if one soul is moved irrevocably toward the side of humanity, then it’s worth it. Human beings are the laziest creatures in the history of creation. We would rather not do anything if we could avoid it. But social justice requires rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. And I think moments like Roots and 12 Years a Slave are opportunities for art as a cultural force to step forward and lead the way. What we do with it is up to us.
This interview originally ran in the Nov. 11, 2013 issue of New York magazine.