ReelReviews #31: Roots (1977) Part 2: 1767-1768

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FEB 4, 2017 SCREENING: ROOTS (1977) Part 2: 1767-1768

 

Ah, the forgotten art of the TV miniseries.  Sure, it’s still around today (just look at 2008’s seven part “John Adams” miniseries, or last year’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63), but it just doesn’t have quite the “must see event of the year” dramatic flair that it had in the 70s and 80s.

 

 

(“Roots”, as it originally aired in 1977, was an 8 episode series that curiously had both 45 min. and 90 min. episodes.  For its re-release on video, it was nicely re-edited into 6  90 min. episodes, and that is the version I’m screening. However, I’m also watching Roots in chronological order, event-wise, so this review will be followed by a review of the 1988 TV movie “Roots: The Gift”, given as it’s the next “event” that happens in the story.  But, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get back to the ReelReviews)

 

 

As this story unfolds on DVD, it’s somewhat amusing to see the narrator (correctly) inform 1977 audiences that they’re witnessing a “landmark event in television history”, which I suppose sounded a bit grandiose and egocentric at the time.  In any case, the second episode of Roots was equally engaging, but I felt it didn’t start off as strongly as its predecessor.  The hinted at “slave revolt” was pretty anti-climatic and never left me on the edge of my seat.  The story did continue the “fish out of water” aspect nicely, as Kunta doesn’t understand any English, and the whites don’t understand any African words.  One particular stand out moment early on in the episode is witnesses a slave auction, when poor Kunta is unaware that is being bid on and sold to the highest bidder.

 

 

The story became “fun” (if you can call this kind of stuff “fun” ) again when we’re introduced to Fiddler, a wonderful iconic television character played with relish by Lou Gossett Jr.  Fiddler is a middle aged American born black slave (who appropriately, is known for his fiddle playing) tasked with “civilizing” young Kunta and assimilating him into American culture.  Fiddler’s master tells him he has only 6 months to train the African and teach him to speak English so well that he’s speaking “the King’s English”.   Fiddler sees his new companion as some type of unruly savage and keeps putting him down as a “Guinea Man” and tries to explain to him that “you can’t do that African stuff no more around these parts. You in America, boy!”  From Kunta’s POV, he might as well be on another planet, as he tells a fellow tribe member “If it’s the same moon in the sky, why is everything else different? The people, the animals, the plants, the land… if my father can look up and see the same moon, why can’t he see me?”

 

 

.Although Kunta does eventually learn some basic ways to communicate; he completely rejects the idea the new name he is given by his captors: Toby.   By the end of the episode, (in perhaps one of the most heart wrenching scenes of the entire miniseries) he is chained to a post and whipped mercilessly until he answers “Toby” to the question “What is your name?”  I found the scene reminiscent of the infamous whipping scene in The Passion of the Christ, and although that was even bloodier and more graphically shown, the level of torture was about the same, and that was a highly controversial 2006 R-rated film compared to a 1977 “family event” on television that was equally powerful and brutal.   Roots has shown its age and has some camp value and silly scenes and characters now, but its harshness about slavery remains timeless.  Episode 2 leaves the audience stunned, and I can say that watching for the first time, four decades after it originally aired.

 

 

 

*** out of ****

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