Television Reviews

Roots – As Powerful and Gripping Now As It Was More Than 40 Years Ago

In February of 1977, there were some terrible winter storms that blanketed the northern half of this country. It happened to coincide with the airing of only the second mini-series in television history. The fact that so many people were trapped in their homes for nights on end helped contribute to the amazing ratings for Roots, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the mini-series, nor take away from the fact that even all these years later it’s still a masterpiece.

Based on the book by Alex Haley, Roots is the story of his family. He managed to trace his family’s origins all the way back through the slave era in the South to its origins in Africa. Roots is the mini-series that was groundbreaking in its time, simply because it had never been done before. The only other mini-series ever produces was Rich Man, Poor Man. When the narrator states that it was “the television event of the year…” he’s not kidding.

Roots begins with the birth of Kunta Kinte in The Gambia, West Africa in 1750. While hunting for a log to make a drum for his younger brother, slavers capture him. He is brought across the Atlantic on board a slave ship. The representation of this is probably a bit toned down, as the conditions were quite a bit worse, but the overall effect does convey the facts that they were mistreated, the women raped, and many were lost during the voyage and their bodies tossed over the side without a care.

When the ship docks at Annapolis, they are “prepped” for sale. Listening to the way these human beings are talked about is pretty horrifying. They are truly treated as merchandise – as if there are no human qualities to them, even as they are talking about the women for breeding and pleasure.

Kunta Kinte is bought by Mr. Reynolds and renamed Toby. He is befriended by Fiddler, who hopes to achieve a better standing for himself by taming the rebellious young man. But Fiddler speaks a truth to Toby when he tells him there is no place to run; that this land has no place for them. In a time before the revolution, there was no question that unless a black man was granted his freedom by his owner, if he ran away and was caught, he would be returned to that owner. Usually, he would also be used as an example for other who had thoughts of running. Most of the slaves stayed simply because there seemed to be no viable alternative.

Finally, Toby runs off once too often. Mr. Reynolds sends slave catchers after him and when they recapture him, they brutally maim him so he will never run again.

Meanwhile, Mr. Reynolds owes money to his brother and pays it back by giving him three slaves, including Toby and Fiddler. There, he meets Belle. The two eventually jump the broom and are wed. Toby’s only known child, Kizzy, is born.

As a teenager, Kizzy ends up getting sold off. At the Moore plantation, she finds herself at the mercy of the owner and she eventually has a son she names George. George doesn’t seem to mind the slave life so much, especially since he gets to raise fighting chickens. He doesn’t even notice the attention of Mathilda with all the other girls giving him attention like a celebrity. However, his mother does notice and knows that if there’s one person who will keep her son on the right path, it’s “Tildy”.

The two do eventually wed and have two sons, Tom and Lewis. George gains his freedom by agreeing to go away with a chicken fighter from England. However, while he is gone, his family is sold by the Moores due to financial constraints. Their new owner, Master Harvey, is better than most, but he still owns them. While George is away, Tom grows up and learns the trade of blacksmithing. He marries and has his own family. When George finally returns, Master Harvey says he can stay with his family. However, the climate of the area is not favorable toward a free black man. With the Civil War on the horizon, George sets off on his own again.

Following the war, Master Harvey loses his plantation. He wants to set the people who were once his slaves completely free, forgiving the debts they incurred trying to farm the land after the war. They are deceived by the new owners, and enslaved economically, if not legally. When George returns a second time, it’s he who sets in motion events that will allow them all to travel to the land he has purchased for his family in Tennessee.

Watching Roots again after all these years was a wonderful experience. I hadn’t seen it since I was in my teens. The story holds up as well now as it did then, even knowing there is some controversy to the truth of Alex Haley’s novel. This is the story of one family in America – a family who didn’t come here willfully. It’s a dark spot in our history along with the holocaust of the Native Americans. For some, this might be hard to digest, as oftentimes people want to celebrate how wonderful this country is and celebrate those founding fathers and pioneers who built the country. Roots shows that there was a cost in blood to get our country where it is today.

One part I loved is later in the story where Tom Harvey must teach Ol’ George Johnson, a white cracker who has become his friend, how to be an overseer. With so many of the men off to fight the Civil War, Ol’ George is hired on at the Harvey farm. Tom and others know that they will get more compassion from their friend and having him there will be to their benefit in the long run (and this does finally come around). Still, it’s troubling to all of them involved in it.

It seems hard to remember a time when O.J. Simpson was known for more than just being a murderer who got away with it, but he’s here, along with a stellar cast. LeVar Burton was “introduced” in this mini-series. John Amos took over the role of Kunta Kinte/Toby as he got older. Some of the surprises are people like Ralph Waite and Edward Asner who are slave traders. These were the goody-goodies of the 1970’s – Lou Grant and Papa Walton are slavers! Lorne Greene – Ben Cartwright – buys Kunta Kinte! Robert Reed – Father Brady – sells off his daughter! Many of the African-American actors are recognizable today, but weren’t well known at the time. Cast here are the likes of Maya Angelou, Georg Stanford Brown, Olivia Cole, and Lynne Moody among others. The performances are magnificent and I felt like I was really watching the lives of these characters. Knowing the actors didn’t detract from the story now, and most certainly didn’t more than forty years ago, either.

Ben Vereen as Chicken George was the one character who really stood out to me at a young age and the one I definitely remember from when I viewed this back when I was ten years old. His lifetime spans the most of the series and it’s a real credit that he made such an impression on me as a child and that his performance easily stands the test of time. My only disappointment is that he didn’t participate in the fantastic commentary that accompanies Roots on DVD.

Watching the early scenes about the capture of a free man in Africa and his enslavement is powerful. We talk about slavery so casually here, and often so abstract. To see human beings beaten up, tied together, and being herded onto ships is pretty sobering. The commentary talks about the things that history didn’t tell us, such as the Africans who sold off their own kind to the slavers. Roots is educational in so many ways, and is another series that can and should be used in the classroom, to bring the story of some of the dark side of our history to life, rather than just reading about it in a textbook.

Roots was another first with showing nudity on television as women walk around topless in the African village. It’s something that seems quite natural for them, and fits the story. However, some people should know it’s there early in the series.

The music is terrific, especially the way it shifts between characters. Even as Kunta Kinte (Toby) is running from his owners in the new world, it shifts to an African rhythm to show the spirit that is still inside him. The makeup effects are excellent as the majority of the character are portrayed by the same actors from the time they are teenagers until they are old and gray, with the exception of Kunta Kinte.

The DVD has commentary for the entire mini-series. Throughout the mini-series, the logo will appear in the corner and visual commentary can be cued if this option is switched on. It minimizes the actual movie to allow various members of the cast and crew to add their input. Those commenting are David L. Wolper, David Greene, William Blinn, Lynn Stalmaster, Jan Scott, LeVar Burton, Cicely Tyson, Edward Asner, John Amos, and others. It was interesting to learn during John Amos’ commentary that he gets into the breeding practices on the plantations and essentially backs up the statements that sports-bookie Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was fired for, although he does say that if Darwin had been there he probably would have been able to state it more eloquently.

You can’t go wrong with this DVD, that was recently released for the 30th anniversary of the landmark mini-series. The final disc also contains two specials on the mini-series. I bought it for my parents for Christmas and I enjoyed watching it. My children joined me on and off and eventually were really interested in seeing the series in its entirety. It’s a great way to learn about history and spark conversations that we should be having but don’t very often.

• Commentary by members of the Cast & Crew including video segments
• Roots Family Tree
• Remembering Roots
• Roots – One Year Later
• Crossing Over – How Roots Captivated a Nation

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