Putting Down Roots
About 20 years ago, McGee was introduced to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (a.k.a. Skip Gates) by an editor at Oxford University Press. They were both working on projects with that editor – hers was a documentary based on the children’s book series “Freedom: A History of US,” and his was a book series titled “The African American National Biography”– and the editor thought Gates’ series might make a good documentary. That meeting did more than make an introduction – it changed McGee’s life, setting her on a path to create the top-rated PBS series “Finding Your Roots.”
“Skip is an irresistible character – we met and instantly hit it off,” she remembers. “He says his favorite story is that one night, he got up to pee and came up with the idea for our series, ‘Finding Your Roots.’ We knew we didn’t want to do a boring biography series, and we were thinking about how we could tell stories of African Americans in an interesting way. At the time, Skip was involved in a lot of work around DNA and mapping the human genome. So, when he got up to pee in the middle of the night, he thought, ‘How do we bring DNA and biography together?’ And then it occurred to him: What if we sit down with famous African Americans and we tell them their genealogy? Let’s see what their DNA tell us about them. It could take us deeper into where African Americans came from and their roots.”
Originally, their series was called “African American Lives,” but after a few years, Gates received a letter from a woman that prompted them to rename the show.
“The letter said, ‘I love your series, ‘African American Lives,’ but forgive me if I call you a racist. Why do you only profile African Americans?’ So, we went to PBS and suggested that we broaden the show. We changed the name of the show to ‘Finding Your Roots,’ and we took a Noah’s Ark approach: we profiled two Jews, two Asians, and it’s evolved from there.”
This wasn’t McGee’s first or only venture into creating films centered on the African American community. She’s also produced a multipart series titled “Frederick Douglass” for HBO, along with numerous other series for PBS, including “The Black Church,” “Reconstruction,” “Black America Since MLK,” “Making Black America: Through the Grapevine,” and more.
And although she’s not African American, McGee’s work has been well-received by the community. Part of this is due to her collaboration with Gates, who she says has taught her so much and is a true partner in this work.
“Without Skip, it wouldn’t be my place to tell these stories, but I’ve never felt like an outsider,” she says. “I’m very conscious about making sure that we work with diverse filmmakers, especially on our African American history series – those are almost always led by a Black filmmaker. I’m always conscious of making sure that we are inclusive in everything that we do.”
The other reason, she says, is due to her beliefs about inclusion – beliefs she’s held since childhood. She remembers sitting down, hand-in-hand with her classmates, at The Day School in Manhattan singing “We Shall Overcome.”
“Civil Rights was always ingrained in me, and I’ve always been inspired by African American history and racial equality,” she explains. “I want to use my privilege as a white woman to shed a light on African American history. I believe that African American history is American history, and these are stories that everyone needs to know. That’s how I’ve always approached it.”