FEB 5, 2017 SCREENING: ROOTS: THE GIFT (1988) Part 2.5: 1775
You’ve probably heard of “deleted scenes” in movies. They generally appear on DVDs and usually consist of little 30 second to 2 minute clips of material that was trimmed from the movie, and it’s easy to see why — because it wasn’t necessary to the story. In the case of Roots, we essentially have an entire 90 min. “deleted episode”, and its Roots: The Gift from 1988. I’m not sure if any of this was covered in Alex Haley’s novel, but in any case it wasn’t used in the original 1977 miniseries. Rather, it was retroactively added eleven years later, and chronologically takes place between the second and third episode of the original. With that in mind, I settled in to watch this story with low expectations, and actually found it quite good.
Roots: The Gift features LeVar Burton and Lou Gossett Jr. reprising their roles as Kunta/Toby and Fiddler. While over a decade passed in real life, almost the same amount of time passes between the events of episode 2 and The Gift, so the actors’ natural aging actually serves the story nicely here. Burton and Gossett also effortlessly got back into character and the story seems to flow naturally and fit in nicely into the original miniseries, rather than come across as jarring and unnatural. With that being said, it is indeed basically 90 mins. of “deleted scenes” from the Roots saga.
The story it tells is actually pretty nice – it’s the Christmas season, and this episode has the unique perspective that the American Revolutionary War is pretty much shown as a minor background issue since the focus of the events is on the POV of the slaves. In The Gift, Kunta/Toby has now pretty much learned how to speak American English and settled into life in the United States, but he was born a freeman and years for freedom – something that Fiddler, born a slave, will never understand. Some of the incidents that audiences criticized in The Gift were precisely the reasons I liked this story: a little girl doesn’t understand that slaves are treated as chattel but wants to thank Toby for his willingness to be a camel in her nativity play by bringing him a present, Fiddler agrees to help a group of other slaves escape to their freedom even though he is terrified of what will happen to him if he’s caught, and both Toby & Fiddler agree to stay behind when there is only one seat left on the boat that will take them up north. Others found these scenes out of character compared to the rest of the Roots saga, whereas I found them touching.
Where I thought The Gift didn’t work was simply an inaccurate depiction of the setting. This was meant to be a “Christmas movie” special in 1988, so there’s lots of Christmas-y celebration references in the story (hanging decorations, singing carols, nativity plays, etc.) and of course the cheesy tie-in of the slaves getting freedom being the true “gift” of the season. This came across as 1980s television cliques to me rather than an accurate historical depiction of colonial era Virginia. Indeed, if the filmmakers had researched the place and era, they’d probably realize that public Christmas celebrations and merry-making in 1770s Virginia would have subjected you to a different kind of discrimination: those who did so would be suspected of being “papists” since public Christmas celebrations tended to be Roman Catholic, whereas it was frowned on by others and considered to be a solemn religious event reserved for church. Roots: The Gift does exceptionally well at presenting one part of American culture that was marginalized by the majority at the time, but fails to notice others so it can put a contemporary “Christmas holiday cheer” spin into a story where it wouldn’t have existed.
On an interesting note: This is considered the unofficial “Star Trek” episode of Roots, as four of the cast later went to become regulars in Star Trek. Of course, there’s LeVar Burton (later Geordi on Star Trek: The Next Generation), but also Avery Brooks (later Sisko on Star Trek: DS9), Kate Mulgrew (later Captain Janeway on Star Trek Voyager), and Tim Russ (later Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager). For that reason alone, I found it worth checking out.
Roots: The Gift tells an additional part of the Roots saga that didn’t need to be told, but it still was a good story, and seeing LeVar Burton and Lou Gossett Jr. reprise their roles was worth the price of admission. Not the greatest Roots episode, but a good one.
** ½ out of ****