FEB 9, 2017 SCREENING: ROOTS (1977) Part 3: 1780-1790
Episode 3 of Roots suffered from “middle chapter” syndrome to me. While it’s decent in its own right, it lacks the “must see what happens next” cliffhangers of the first two episodes, as well as the sappy heartwarming tone of “Roots: The Gift”, which was made over a decade later but immediately proceeded this story from a chronological standpoint. Episode 3 of the original Roots tells an important story in its own right and moves the saga forward, but that is not enough to rate it is an outstanding part of television history.
The most jarring aspect of Roots third episode was the casting: John Amos as the now middle-aged Kunta Kinte/Toby. Amos’ acting here is good, and genuinely tried to give the character a bit of an African accent and speak in some clipped English to make it seem as though he came to this country as a young man. (LeVar Burton never attempted to do an African accent, which I found a bit odd since he clearly had no problem doing one in other productions, like his voiceover work as Kwame in Captain Planet). In any case, the biggest problem here is that Amos looks and acts nothing like LeVar Burton, so it seems like he’s playing an entirely different character instead of a middle aged version of the character shown in three previous installments. Lou Gossett Jr., on the other hand, DOES reprise his role as Fiddler (now an elderly character), which makes his scenes with John Amos all the more strange.
Those who criticize Roots for having entirely “evil white people” as its Caucasian characters must be thinking of Episode 3. Here, it’s none other than Robert Reed from the Brady Bunch who plays the “nicest” of the evil white people. Reed’s character is even-handed and calm, but moreso because he views Toby as an important component of his plantation than a actual person deserving of compassion. Following a brutal scene where Toby has half his foot chopped off to prevent him from escaping again, Reed’s character takes “pity” on him, shaking his head in disgust with comments like “Those Barbarians. I want to know I don’t condone what they did to you. Shame on them, ruining a value piece of property like that”.
In any case, I really don’t condone Roots portrayal of mostly heartless white people either, given that most of the whites we’ve seen so far tend to be southern slave owners, and there is little getting around the historic truth that American slavery had a very ugly and racist component to it.
That being said, little happens in this episode to really advance the story. The audience has clearly seen the last of Toby’s attempts to escape, and he finds love and a place in this episode, getting married and having a daughter later in life. The end of the episode finally makes the payoff the episode worthwhile: Fiddler dies of old age, leaving Toby to leave us with the haunting line “So now you finally know what it’s like to be free” that he says to his deceased friend. Toby takes his naked infant daughter and raises her up to the sky to repeat the baby dedication his family did in Africa, showing he will forever retain the spirit of his roots. And in a very sad but moving scene, he hears the drumbeat of a fellow slave that promised to give him a drumming signal when it was time to escape, but he ultimately decides not to leave because it would mean forever running away from his wife and newborn baby daughter.
As I noted, Episode 3 has its merits. It just doesn’t live up to what came before.
** out of ****