Following the astounding success of the first mini-series based on Alex Haley’s novel Roots, a second mini-series was filmed to finish the story from when the Harvey family moved to Tennessee until Alex Haley found that little village in Africa where Kunta Kinte lived before being abducted into slavery.
Tom Harvey has made a home for his family in Lauderdale County, Tennessee. His Daddy, Chicken George, comes to live with them. He has moments of clarity and moments where his memory is faulty.
As with Roots, there are side stories of how the issue of race also affected those in the white community who weren’t bigoted. Nearby lives the Warner family. Patriarch Colonel Fred Warner was in the Confederate Army. He has two sons, one of whom ends up falling for Carrie Barden, the black teacher hired to teach the local black schoolchildren. Jim Warner eventually convinces her to marry him. As supportive as Fred Warner is of the local blacks being educated, he will not accept one in his family.
Meanwhile, one of Tom’s daughters, Elizabeth, has turned eighteen and has a suitor. Tom doesn’t approve of the relationship because the suitor is light-skinned and forces them apart. Elizabeth never marries, and she is the old-maid Aunt whom Alex Haley remembered hearing stories from on the porch in his youth.
Georg Stanford Brown is back in the role of Tom Harvey. However, Ben Vereen did not return to that of his father, Chicken George. Avon Long took over that role. One of my favorite characters “Ol’ George Johnson” from the last mini-series is mentioned as having gone west. This, along with the fact that Chicken George’s father was a white man really seems to make Tom’s actions in regard to Elizabeth hypocritical.
It’s shocking to realize how frightened Carrie is when her romance with Jim Warner begins. She is afraid of being seen with him in public. When she accepts a ride from him, she insists on sitting in the back of the carriage. She is that afraid of reprisals from the town if she “doesn’t know her place.”
Tom’s daughter Cynthia meets Will Palmer. He’s a hard worker who proves himself in a town where segregation and the disenfranchisement of the right to vote for blacks are occurring. The same day he buries a friend who is burned alive while tied to a tree, he is given the opportunity to run the town’s lumber mill. The businessmen see the dollar signs and won’t let color get in the way of their getting their money back.
Will and Cynthia have a daughter named Bertha. Her early years are skipped and the next episode following her birth picks up with her headed off to college. She is a beautiful girl who garners a lot of attention. However, she falls for the cerebral, shy, and awkward Simon Haley.
The time from when Simon and Bertha meet is depicted extensively, especially Simon. Even though he is not down the Kunta Kinte lineage, quite a bit of time is spent showing how he managed to achieve a college education and then what conditions were like in the Army during the First World War for African-Americans.
Alex’s childhood is depicted with his exposure to racism in the South. His mother, Bertha, dies when he is fairly young and it leaves him to care for his two younger brothers with his father. He spends summers back in Tennessee where he hears the stories of the family lineage from his grandmother and great-Aunt.
His father eventually remarries, but Alex has difficulty accepting his stepmother. More of his relationship with his father’s mother, Queen Haley, is shown as well. His father has dreams of Alex following in his footsteps, but Alex has a different set of dreams.
When James Earl Jones comes on in the role of Alex Haley, everything comes together. Jones is such a terrific actor that he brings in the restlessness of Haley’s ancestors wanting their story told. Alex is a complicated man. Despite a successful writing career publishing interviews of people such as Malcolm X and George Lincoln Rockwell (then leader of the American Nazi Party), he can’t get the approval he needs from his father and feels he doesn’t know why he’s living.
The impact of the moment when he connects to that African village and says “You Old African! I found you! Kunta Kinte! I found you!” has as much impact now as it did a long time ago. It was a moment I remembered distinctly when I viewed it on television.
Roots: The Next Generations really brings the story full circle with the descendent of Kunta Kinte returning to Africa and finding his relatives. It seems a suitable conclusion to the story that began at the beginning of Roots.
The acting is all first-rate. Many of the actors weren’t as well-known when this aired as they are now. Georg Stanford Brown is magnificent as he continues the role of Tom Harvey. Debbi Morgan has the longest role as Aunt Elizabeth and handles it very well, bringing the family stories to the forefront. The cast really brings a sense of family that Alex Haley was trying to drive home, and it’s something everyone can relate to regardless of color.
I really liked the performance by Olivia de Havilland. Her scenes with Richard Thomas are excellent. This story and the characters like a few others (notably Simon Haley’s friend Mr. Pettijohn) suddenly get dropped and the people are never talked about again. I felt that was a shame after there was so much time invested in showing them to us.
The scenes from WWI were very obviously shot on soundstages and sets. They don’t look terribly realistic. However, they do go a long way to showing how things were for blacks during that time. It’s something that seems easy to forget after some of the advances that have been made in race relations.
Marlon Brando as George Lincoln Rockwell is also fantastic. During the lone special feature, Producers David L. Wolper and Stan Margulies talk about how many people were asking to be in this production, and Brando was one of them. Wolper knew exactly what role was perfect for the actor and it was a tremendous moment between two fantastic actors.
The production values are excellent. Building on the success of Roots, it was given a little more leeway in terms of what it could do, but I can’t say that it looks more expensive than the first series. The focus is the story of the family, and it stays grounded to that reality quite well.
If there’s one thing that disappointed me, it was the lack of special features on these discs compared to the first mini-series. I loved the commentary with the video moments in the first collections, and there’s none of that here. There’s just one production special tacked on the end of the last disc and I really wanted more.
There was no time when I felt bored watching Roots: The Next Generations. These two mini-series are a gift of our history that every family can give to their children. It tells the story of slavery and of moving beyond it to where we are today. If they ban teaching black history in your child’s school, this is a way to introduce the subject.
• Roots: The Next Generations – The Legacy Continues
Categories: Television Reviews