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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ReelReviews #30: Roots (1977) Part 1: 1750-1767

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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 ****