FEB 19, 2017 SCREENING: ROOTS: TNG (1978) Part 3: 1914-1918
Wow, what an interesting experience. Out of all the episodes in the entire Roots saga (both the original miniseries and the sequel series), this one best fit the ideal of the whole franchise. As Levar Burton mentioned on one the DVD extras, the idea behind Roots is that it tells the story of a black family, but the point is not that they’re black, but that it is marketed as “The Saga of an AMERICAN family”, and that all Americans can identify with the story and learn something about themselves and the history of this country. Nowhere does this concept work better than the third episode of Roots: TNG.
Part 3 is set in the early 20th century, and ends right at the dawn of World War I. The focus on this episode is the two characters that will become the parents of the miniseries author: Alex Haley. Namely, it’s about how Will Palmer’s daughter Bertha George meets and falls in love with Simon Haley at an all black college. Still, this major plotline is just part of an intervening series of events that encompass a large cast of characters.
Since Simon Haley traced his “Roots” back to Africa via his mother’s lineage, it’s a welcome addition to the saga that the episode shows Simon Haley’s parents and the audience learns a bit about his father’s side of the family, which is quite different than Bertha’s parents, (Will & Cynthia Palmer) For starters, Simon’s father is a poor sharecropper who questions spending so much money so his son can be the first in the family to go to college. For what it’s worth, Simon Haley gets a job as a porter on a train to earn some money for college, and finds himself very fortunate though a chance meeting with a passage on the train.
A surprise subplot that ends up tying into this whole story is the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which appropriately occurs at the correct time in did in real life history (the Klan was revived following the popularity of the film Birth of a Nation in 1915, and this episode of Roots is set in 1916) As the Klan was portrayed in a somewhat cartoonish manner with a fictional origin story in the original Roots, I expected it would be a bit ridiculous here. Instead, I though the episode did an excellent job capturing the second Klan era, where it was pretty much turned into a “hate everyone that isn’t white Anglo Saxon protestant” group that dressed itself up as nice fraternal “Christian” social club. One scene that really hit home and captured this well was a portion of the episode where the Klan burns down the local dress store where Mr. Goldstein had sold a wedding dress to Bertha George. Will Palmer is baffled why the Klan would “go after a white man” and Goldstein tells him “You look at me and see a white man. But the Klan looks at me and sees a Jew”. Goldstein is forced to move back to Chicago, but both Goldstein and Palmer forgive each other’s past debts and promise to stay in touch.
The episode ends on a particularly dramatic high note as Simon Haley volunteers to join the army on the eve of World War I, and quickly finds himself in an all-black platoon (the army was segregated in those days) complete with a black drill sergeant barking orders at him. Simon finally convinces the sergeant to let him step away for a few minutes “to say goodbye to my girl”, but he has to jump on the train quickly and Bertha bids him a tearful farewell as that famous Roots score makes way for the end credits.
Roots, episode 3, is without a doubt my favorite installment of the entire saga.
*** ½ out of ****