Sixteen years ago, the late Alex Haley tapped into the American consciousness with his landmark ABC miniseries "Roots." More than 100 million people tuned into the 12 hour-drama, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 best-seller, which chronicled Haley's maternal ancestors' origins from Africa and their passage from slavery to freedom in America.
Audiences will see a far different family story depicted in "Alex Haley's Queen," the lavish, six-hour miniseries that begins Sunday on CBS. "Queen" explores the origins and life of Haley's paternal grandmother, who was born out of a love affair between a slave and a plantation owner before the Civil War. Throughout her life, Queen had to battle racism and poverty and ultimately, mental illness. Halle Berry plays Queen; Danny Glover, Ann-Margret, Jasmine Guy, Martin Sheen and Timothy Daly are among the featured stars.
" 'Roots" was important at that time because there had been no show that had been done to talk to the history of black America," said "Queen" producer Mark Wolper. "This show interestingly enough is coming out at a time where there are enormous racial problems between blacks and whites."
The "Queen" miniseries, Wolper said, "addresses a woman who is both black and white and her trying to discover who she is--whether she is black or whether she is white. Ultimately, she realizes it doesn't matter. What is important is family and love and your relationship with the people around you. By accident, or by Alex Haley's intuition, this film is more appropriate for this time."
The producer, who worked closely with Haley in the months before his death, said Haley told him that black Americans today are more interested in "going beyond" the past and looking to the future and "finding their place now in this country." "Queen," he believes, speaks to those concerns.
It was Feb. 10, 1992, when Wolper and "Queen" director John Erman, who also directed "Roots" and the 1979 sequel, "Roots: The Next Generations," had lunch with Haley at the Bel-Air Hotel. The writer, 70, died later that day of cardiac arrest.
Haley had read and approved the completed screenplay and Erman and Wolper were deep into pre-production by that time.
"He said at the luncheon, 'This story has to be told now'," Wolper recalled. "This was before the L.A. riots. Somehow, he sensed that things were tense."
" 'I have all sorts of notes I think will be helpful to you and I will send them to you tomorrow'," Erman recalled Haley telling him. "Of course, there wasn't a tomorrow," he added, sadly. "Fortunately, I did something that was very uncharacteristic of me--I made notes while we were having lunch because I had so many questions about the material. Of course, he had answers and I recorded them all, thank God."
"Queen" is dedicated to Haley.
"Alex was an enormous force for me," Erman said. "I wanted this to be OK with him. I wanted this to be what he would want."
For three years, Haley worked and traveled throughout the South with British screenwriter David Stevens ("Breaker Morant"). When Stevens was hired by "Queen" executive producers Bernard Sofronksi and David Wolper, who also produced both "Roots," he thought Haley had already completed the book version of "Queen."
"Because I was engaged to adapt, I thought a manuscript would be delivered to me, but I didn't know Alex then," Stevens said. What was delivered was 700 pages of research formulated into an outline, plus another 200 pages of chronological data. "I digested it all the best I could."
Stevens, who is now completing the book version of "Queen," decided to visit Haley at his farm in Henning, Tenn. "It was like Aladdin walking into a treasure cave," he said. "There were boxes and boxes of material, but above everything else, there was Alex. I quickly discovered that though there were bits and pieces of the novel written down everywhere, it was complete in his head. I realized I was never going to have a manuscript, but it was there in his head and mind. I came to extract it from his head. It was one of the great journeys of my life."
Haley insisted that his white Southern ancestors be depicted in a sympathetic light, Stevens said. That prerequisite became Stevens' biggest challenge. "What a journey it was to have white slave owners as your heroes, as the people you must feel sympathy for," Stevens said. 'I was dealing with such an exact culture. I was dealing with America which to a foreigner is exotic. I was dealing with racist America as a sympathetic character as well. All of this was through the prism of Alex Haley."