Casey Crafford/African Photo Productions/E Networks
Lynette Rice
March 18, 2016 AT 12:00 PM EDT

A remake of Roots by History may not have the same impact today as it did in 1977, when the original that starred LeVar Burton attracted roughly 130 million people. But the heartbreaking saga about slavery is just as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago, Burton tells EW.

“Look around America,” says the actor, who originated the onscreen role of heroic slave Kunta Kinte, now played by newcomer Malachi Kirby in the event series that also stars Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anika Noni Rose, and Mekhi Phifer. “The vestiges of slavery and its legacy — which is racism — are alive and well in our culture. We must confront it in order to defeat it.”

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Unlike the original, which was shot in Georgia and on an L.A. soundstage, History’s four-parter features some scenes filmed in South Africa. That’s also where Burton, who has a cameo in the event series, shed his first sentimental tear over the project. “When I arrived, the very first scene that I saw was the naming sequence when Omoro holds the baby Kunta up to the sky and says, ‘Behold, the only thing greater than you,’ ” Burton says. “This has been an extraordinary experience.”

History will air Roots over four consecutive nights at 9 p.m. ET beginning May 30. It will also be simulcast on Lifetime and A&E.

Steve Dietl/ A+E Networks

Michele Short/A+E Networks

A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1407, on newsstands now or available digitally here.

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