FEB 3, 2017 SCREENING: ROOTS (1977) Part 1: 1750-1767
After an unintended mighty hiatus of two years, ReelReviews returns triumphantly in Feb. 2017 to look at the most watched television miniseries of all time: Roots (1977). The occasion seems oddly appropriate: this is the 40th anniversary of the television event, this is black history month, and here I am, a white suburban guy from Chicagoland who grew up in the 1980s and first saw LeVar Burton in Reading Rainbow. With Roots (1977), Roots: The Next Generations (1978), Roots: The Gift (1988), and last year’s remake of Roots (2016), there’s plenty material to go around. Today’s review starts off at the very beginning: Episode 1 of the famous franchise.
The biggest controversy in Roots is that it is supposedly “Based on a true story” of Alex Haley’s ancestry, dating back to his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte, who Haley explains was kidnapped from Africa in 1767 and sold into slavery. The problem, of course, is that later genealogists pretty much proved that Haley could not be related to this figure, and indeed, there is now considerable doubt about whether this “Kunta Kinte” figure actually existed. Thus, its best to classify the first episode of Roots as Historic Fiction – a sort of “what if?” story that researches that was going on at that time and tries to reconstruct what it would be like for this “Kunta Kinte” character if he lived in those times. With that aspect in mind, I found the episode very compelling and well made.
“Roots” part 1 is a fish out of water story about a young African boy (about 16 or so?) who has just completed his initiation into manhood when he finds himself ripped away from his culture suddenly in a strange alien world where he is held captive on a ship. After his father sees his son taken captive by slave traders, he has to break the devastating news to the boy’s mother with the chilling line that “You still have two sons. But one of them is now forever outside our world”, as she cries in anguish. “Roots” shows its age at times with some cheesy 70s filming techniques and casting people like O.J. Simpson as a local tribal chief (I thought O.J.’s acting performance was actually pretty decent), but it’s easy to see how this story captured (no pun intended) American audiences in 1977 and held them in suspension (okay, maybe now I’m adding puns) for the next episode. “Roots” did everything it needed to do to start off a television miniseries right: it creates a compelling world, takes about a relative part of history that Americans should learn about, has dynamic characters, and is action packed and exciting.
I’ve previous heard from others (including my parents) that white viewers may find Roots difficult to sit through because there are “no good white people” in the miniseries. I didn’t find this to be the case at all. Since the story is from the POV of those enslaved, the “white people” shown in this miniseries always tend to be the enslavers (later episodes bring up abolitionists and other “good” white people, but that’s not relevant yet). One particularly good subplot that added some depth was the captain of the slave vessel (Ed Asner) is portrayed as a very devout Christian man who has never commanded a vessel on a slave raid before, and (like any decent person) finds himself disgusted and horrified by many of the things he sees, but ultimately succumbs to the pressure from the culture around him to make it a “successful” mission. Given Asner’s politics, I generally loathe the man, but his performance here was solid, as was the truly evil other white character who is a slave trader for a living. Like all good historical dramas, whether it’s the story of the holocaust or Nero throwing Christians to the lions or English sailors capturing slaves, it has to deal with an ugly reality that happened and can’t be glossed over. Roots hits the viewers in the gut, and that’s a good thing.
The first episode ends with the hint that Kunta Kinte and his fellow captives will plan an insurrection on the high seas soon, despite all coming from different tribal groups and language backgrounds. While that is problematic from a historical perspective, from a story perspective it worked very well and kept me excited for part two, as I had expected the story to end with the ship arriving in the Virginia harbor and Kunta Kinte seeing America for the first time. Oh well.
*** out of ****