For 250 years, two grand rows of oak trees have stood guard at Boone Hall Plantation just outside Charleston, S.C. They reach for each other over the main road, forming a leafy cathedral ceiling that colors the sunlight filtering through blue-green. More than 100,000 tourists, most of them white, walk this Avenue of Oaks each year, while plantation tour guides float about in ruffly hoopskirts, conjuring images of horse-drawn carriages and lavish barbecues on the lawn. But to the black members of the cast and crew here to film Queen — the six-hour CBS miniseries about the paternal grandmother of the late Roots author, Alex Haley — the shade trees are menacing. ”On one of those trees, a slave could have been hung,” says 10-year-old Jussie Smollett (who plays Haley’s father, Simon, as a boy), letting his imagination go wild. ”Somebody got whipped. We’ve got, like, chills all up our spines, because it’s scary.”
Jasmine Guy (A Different World), who plays Haley’s great-grandmother, recalls the moment she first pulled into the plantation entrance. ”I felt ill,” she says. ”I felt scared, I felt dead, and then I saw the slave quarters” — nine dirt-floored brick shacks, barely tall enough for an adult to stand in. Throughout the 20 days of filming at Boone Hall, tourists stroll by them, smiling and nodding while the guides say how fortunate it is that a few of the slave quarters are still intact. ”I’m watching them,” Guy says, ”and going, ‘What are they talking about?”’
Boone Hall is standing in for Alabama’s Forks of Cypress, the plantation where Haley’s grandmother Queen Jackson, the daughter of the slave Easter and her white master, Col. James Jackson (played by Tim Daly), was born. Queen explores the father’s side of Haley’s family and is thus a kind of companion piece to the 1977 blockbuster TV version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Roots. Still the highest-rated miniseries of all time, Roots chronicled — and somewhat fictionalized — his maternal ancestry. (A sequel, Roots: The Next Generation, aired in 1979.) Although he spent more than a decade researching the tales that Grandma Queen had told him when he was a kid in Normal, Ala., Haley chose not to aim for Roots’ massive Africa-to-America scope. He hoped Queen’s story alone would illuminate the murky and sensitive history of master-slave sexual relationships and their offspring.
The children — like Queen — sired by white masters were usually raised as slaves. And though Haley maintains that Queen’s parents loved each other, the Jacksons threw her off the plantation when she was freed after the Civil War. Her extremely light skin, which sometimes enabled her to pass as white, gave her a confusing double life that contributed to emotional problems as she got older. About a year before Haley died in February 1992, he began dictating the details of Queen’s life on tape to David Stevens, the screenwriter-director of the Emmy award-winning miniseries A Town Like Alice. Stevens had been introduced to Haley by David Wolper, Roots executive producer, and then went on to write the Queen teleplay.
The resulting show is a creative-family reunion. Wolper is an executive producer of Queen, and his son Mark, 32, a teenager when Roots aired, is producer. The cast consists of veterans of Roots and its sequel in new roles, including Madge Sinclair, Ossie Davis, and Paul Winfield. Martin Sheen and Ann-Margret play Haley’s great-great-grandparents, the elder Jacksons, and Victor Garber (Light Sleeper) joins in as a bigoted Southern suitor who’s duped into believing Queen is white.
Casting Queen was the hard part. ”The role calls for somebody who is as white as (I am) but yet is black,” says Mark Wolper. ”And she had to be a hell of a f—ing actress to carry a six-hour miniseries.” In the course of the saga, Queen ages from her teens to her mid-60s, sees her lover hanged, and in later life suffers the horrors of a mental institution. Contenders for the part included Jasmine Guy, Vanessa Williams, Jennifer Beals, and Lonette McKee (who instead plays a friend of Queen’s). Halle Berry, at 23, was considered too young (her only starring credit was Eddie Murphy’s then unreleased Boomerang). But Berry, who has a white mother and a black father, became obsessed with the role. She insisted on auditioning and paid her own way from New York to Los Angeles for a screen test.
”They were talking about the African-American people in Roots,” Berry says, ”and about the white people, the plantation owners, but I remember thinking then, ‘What about the people like me who are mixed?’ Queen directly addressed this for me.” After the screen test, she got the part.