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The Cast of the Original "Roots" Knows All About Hollywood’s Diversity Problem

Mother Jones

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The Roots miniseries that aired back in 1977 had the largest black cast in the history of commercial television—and the biggest audience numbers, too. It drew more than 100 million viewers in the United States, and millions more internationally. This unprecedented success seemed to herald new possibilities for black employment in television and film, and optimism that more black-themed shows would cross over to white audiences. But nearly four decades later—think #OscarsSoWhite—that dream remains unfilled. With History’s Roots remake now making headlines, it’s useful to look to the original series as a cautionary tale on the pace of progress in Hollywood.

Roots failed to change the racial dynamics of the industry primarily because Hollywood executives perceived it as a unique black story they could pitch to white audiences. In discussing the casting, the creators emphasized that Roots would have to appeal to whites to succeed commercially. Alex Haley’s best-selling book, the basis for the saga, contained no major white characters—but that was never seriously considered as an option for television.

Producer David Wolper argued that hiring white “television names” was the only way to ensure that Roots wouldn’t be marginalized. “If people perceive Roots to be a black history show—nobody is going to watch it,” he said. “If they say, ‘Let me see, there are no names in it, a lot of black actors and there are no whites’…It looks like it’s going to be a black journal—it’s all going to be blacks telling about their history.”

Wolper, whose son Mark produced the new Roots, was a white TV veteran who had pitched and developed programs for two decades before Roots came along. He understood as well as anyone the logic of race and demographics that governed Hollywood in that era. For Wolper and for ABC, it was simple arithmetic. “Remember, the television audience is only 10 percent black and 90 percent white,” Wolper said following Roots‘ record-breaking run. “So if we do the show for blacks and only every black in America watches, it is a disaster—a total disaster.”

Roots was successful in many ways. It sparked a national conversation about race and slavery. It helped legitimize the miniseries format and begat several follow-up projects—Roots: The Next Generation (1979), Roots: The Gift (1988), and Alex Haley’s Queen (1993). It also paved the way for unrelated miniseries such as Holocaust (1978), The Thorn Birds (1983), and Winds of War (1983). It made ABC (and Doubleday books) a ton of money to boot. But what Roots didn’t do was persuade the suits to greenlight more shows with black leads.

Roots‘ black cast members felt this failure acutely. “We were so fabulous I thought we would have jobs up the wazoo,” Leslie Uggams, who played Kizzy, told Wendy Williams in 2013. “And there were no jobs. I didn’t get another job until two years later when I did a show called Back Stairs at the White House. We were very disappointed, because we had all these accolades; it was like we did our quota, and now that’s it for the rest of time.” Lynne Moody, who portrayed Alex Haley’s great-great-grandmother in the original, said she “thought Roots would skyrocket me,” but when those acting jobs failed to materialize, “I felt the color of my skin” and fell into a “deep depression.”

When an interviewer asked John Amos, the actor who portrayed the grown-up Kunta Kinte, whether he’d reaped any rewards from Roots, Amos joked, “Yeah, the unemployment office.” Even David Wolper conceded that Roots‘ success had limits. “I don’t think it changed race relations,” he told an interviewer in 1998. “I think for a moment it had an impact. Did it help African American actors? No. A lot of them couldn’t get work even after Roots came on. Did more stories about African Americans show on television? No.”

The new series plays out, of course, in a very different cultural landscape. The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn national attention to the mistreatment of African Americans by the police. And the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign called out the problematic lack of color in Hollywood’s production pipeline with help from watchdogs like UCLA’s Bunche Center, whose annual “Hollywood Diversity Report” compiles data showing how people of color are underrepresented as actors, directors, and writers in film and television.

America is far more racially and ethnically diverse today than it was in 1977, but Hollywood has been slow to catch up, particularly at the cineplex. And while the success of recent black-led television shows, including How to Get Away With Murder, Blackish, Empire, and Underground, is a hopeful sign, there’s no guarantee this trend will continue.

If Roots proved anything, it’s that high ratings aren’t enough. There have to be more people of color (and women, for that matter) in the writer’s room, behind the camera, and, crucially, in positions of power at the studios and talent agencies that determine what America watches. The Roots remake, though well worth watching, is an apt reminder that the road to equal opportunity is a long one.

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The Cast of the Original "Roots" Knows All About Hollywood’s Diversity Problem

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What Happens to Marco Rubio If the GOP Isn’t Ready for the Future?

Mother Jones

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The premise of Marco Rubio’s campaign in South Carolina is a simple one. It was best summed up by Rubio spokesman Alex Conant: Rubio is building “a Republican Party that doesn’t look like your dad’s Republican Party.”

For evidence, one need look no further than the group of wise-cracking young GOP politicians who joined him at the Swamp Rabbit CrossFit gym in Greenville on Thursday morning. The group included Sen. Tim Scott, the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction, who occupies the seat formerly held by segregationist Strom Thurmond; Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Sikh immigrants, who led the push to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol last year; and Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chairs the Benghazi committee. Okay, Gowdy is a white guy, but he is at least Gen X and also a wizard. And they were all at the gym to endorse the son of Cuban immigrants who jokes about his fluency in Spanish while campaigning in a state where legislators have regularly pushed English-only laws.

Rubio’s surrogates drew attention to their diversity with varying degrees of subtlety. “He is honest, he is humble, he is historic, he represents our state in an incredible way,” Gowdy said of Scott.

“She understands the journey of the American dream in a very unique way,” Scott said of Haley.

“Take a picture of this,” Haley said of the four of them, when they came on stage for a curtain call at the Swamp Rabbit. “Because a new group of conservatives has taken over America. It looks like a Benetton commercial!”

For his part, Rubio likes to emphasize his youth (he’s 44, he says, but feels 45) and boasts that he hails from a “new generation” that can “turn the page” on the 20th century. He doesn’t talk much about migrants or refugees. (When asked about American Muslims, he sounds like he’d rather be somewhere else.)

But two days before the primary, Rubio is in third place in the polls in the Palmetto State, and—not-so-fun fact—no third-place finisher in this state has ever gone on to win the presidential nomination. One reason he trails Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is because at this moment the Republican past is crushing the GOP’s future. Rubio is getting hammered on the airwaves by his opponents for being too soft on undocumented immigrants. And his promise to usher in a new generation is being drowned out by the ultra-nativist promises of Trump, who derives much of his support from his pledge to build a gigantic wall on the Mexican border and his proposal to ban Muslims from coming to the United States.

Even as South Carolina has welcomed and embraced its Benetton conservatives, a huge chunk of Republican voters are apparently motivated by the traditional divides. For Rubio, this is an existential challenge: What happens to the candidate of the future if the future isn’t really here yet?


What Happens to Marco Rubio If the GOP Isn’t Ready for the Future?

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What to Expect From President Obama’s Final State of the Union Address

Mother Jones

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On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address to cap what has been, in many ways, a historic presidency. Obama is the third consecutive two-term president, and his predecessors’ final addresses offer hints as to what we can expect from Obama’s speech. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both spoke of the importance of strengthening the economy and highlighted examples of economic progress. Clinton advocated efforts to close the “gulf between rich and poor,” while Bush warned of the dangers of rising entitlement spending if costs weren’t reined in. Expect Obama to follow suit and call for broad and sweeping improvements to the country. Obama’s specific proposals may differ—look for him to urge gun control legislation, a reform of the immigration system, and continued access to affordable quality health insurance—but the tenor of his speech should be similar: The past seven years have brought great progress, but there are a few steps remaining to cement his presidential legacy.

The speech

Obama is not just at the end of his term, but at the end of his presidency. Unlike his 2012 address, when he made a specific pledge to reform Medicare and issued pleas for bipartisan tax and entitlement reform, his speech on Tuesday will probably be painted with broader strokes, commenting on the general state of the country and progress that has been made since 2008. While you can expect him to mention the Affordable Care Act and call for more sensible gun control legislation, he’s also likely to focus on the future and the fates of ordinary Americans.

In a Sunday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, foreshadowed the tone of the president’s remarks.

“You’ll hear him talk about every American having a shot in this changing economy,” McDonough said. “You’ll hear him talk about using all the elements of our national power to protect and grow the influence of this country. And importantly…you’ll hear the president talk about making sure that every American has a chance to influence this democracy. Not the select few, not the millionaires and the billionaires, but every American.”

Obama no longer has to worry about re-election, and he can’t expect much meaningful legislation to emerge from cooperation with Republican leaders in Congress in his final year, so he may take off the gloves in addressing the GOP. Condemnations of the Republican responses to climate change and mass shootings will be fair game. He may use Republican presidential candidates’ anti-immigrant statements to press for reforms to the immigration system—and to take down the GOP field a notch in the public view.

This election year is of particular importance to Democrats. They are currently outnumbered by Republicans in both the House and Senate, and relinquishing the Oval Office would create a nightmare scenario for those left of the aisle. While the president has promised not to endorse any candidate in the Democratic primary in 2016, he might look forward to November and devote a portion of his speech to a more direct rejection of conservative strategies, especially when it comes to guns, the economy, and health care.

The guests

The State of the Union guest list often tells us something about the themes or ideas the president wishes to express. This year’s invitees are no exception, as they are filled with people who symbolize key points of Obama’s tenure. The president has invited two activists, including Jim Obergefell of landmark Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same sex marriage. (Interestingly, he did not invite any activists from the influential Black Lives Matter movement, although it would be surprising if he didn’t make some mention of racially motivated violence, given its prominence in the past year’s public discourse.) Two Syrian refugees will also be in attendance, including nine-year-old Ahmad Alkhalaf, invited by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). Obama’s most noteworthy invitation, however, is for a guaranteed no-show. The president left one seat vacant in the First Lady’s guest box to commemorate the lives of those lost to gun violence—a powerful gesture just a week after his passionate speech on gun safety reform.

The response

Republicans announced last week that Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina would give the party’s official response to the president’s speech. Haley, both the youngest governor in the country and the first female and non-white governor in South Carolina’s history, represents a more welcoming, inclusive future for the party. In a political year whose spotlight has shone on Donald Trump, a white man with some not-so-friendly opinions about immigrants, Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, represents a softer sell for conservatism for anyone who isn’t wooed by Trump. Haley made national headlines last summer when she removed the confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds.

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What to Expect From President Obama’s Final State of the Union Address

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National Briefing | South: Florida: Reversal in Course Signals Whales May Be Ill

Twenty whales believed to be part of a pod found stranded in the Everglades this week were spotted Friday afternoon moving closer toward shore. Visit source: National Briefing | South: Florida: Reversal in Course Signals Whales May Be Ill ; ;Related ArticlesSinosphere Blog: Air Pollution Shrouds Eastern ChinaShell Opts Not to Build Plant on Gulf Coast, Citing CostsThe Texas Tribune: Wastewater Case Raises the Concept of Underground Trespassing ;

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National Briefing | South: Florida: Reversal in Course Signals Whales May Be Ill

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