TV Review: Roots (1977)
America has done some pretty stupid things in its time. Things to be ashamed of, things to hang its head over. But by far the most despicable, unbelievable and shameful mark on its timeline were the slave years.
From the late 1600's until the mid to late 1800's, over 300,000 people were taken from their homeland and sold into slavery in the United States. That's over 200 straight years of crimes against humanity. And while slavery, and racism in general, was always far worse in the southern states, America as a whole was guilty as an entire nation for allowing it to happen.
In 1976, the book Roots: The Saga of an American Family was released, which told the story of Kunta Kinte, an African born man who was stolen from his home in the late 1700's and sold into slavery. The book traces Kinte's journey to America, his time at a number of plantations, and the lineage that would eventually lead to Alex Haley, author of Roots. Haley has said that the character of Kinte was based on a real person, but that the story told in the book was partially fiction. I didn't read the book, but really, who cares whether Kinte himself was real or not, this is the way it was. This stuff happened, to over 300,000 men, women and children. People who were stolen from their homes by slave traders, brought to the United States and sold as property to the highest bidder. In essence, these African men and women were cattle for Americans to use and abuse and they saw fit. Roots spent many months on the New York Times Bestseller list and was something of a publishing phenomenon when it was released. So it was inevitable that a movie or tv show would follow, and in 1977 Roots appeared on ABC-TV in the form of a miniseries.
The show played over eight consecutive nights on ABC and broke every viewing record for television there was to break at the time, with the series finale still holding the spot for the 3rd most watched television episode of all time, with over 36 million viewers tuning in.
So the book was a phenomenon, and the show was an even bigger phenomenon. But this was in 1977. It stands to reason that in light of the vast amount of content that has come out regarding slavery since that Roots will have dated and lost the punch that viewers first felt upon its release.
Well I just watched all nine and half hours of the miniseries in four days and I'm here to tell you that, although I wasn't yet born when the show originally aired, it has lost none of its punch. Roots is as ambitious, as exciting, as sublime, as important and as maddening as I imagine it was back in '77, when much of the audience tuning in to this special presentation were getting their first history lesson regarding this ugly chapter of America's past.
I spent much of the first episode, where we are introduced to Kunta at his birth and follow him into slavery and to his first plantation, in a state of depression and anger. I know about slavery. I know that it happened (and is still happening today in certain parts of the world) and have seen its representation in films both good and bad. But for some reason, while watching episode one of Roots, the reality of slavery hit me harder than it had before. Now you could say this is because of the writing, or the directing of the episode. Or you could say that it is as a result of Lavar Burton's brilliant turn as young Kunta. But it was more than craftsmanship that had me squirming in my seat, it was the reality of this savagery that transcended what was happening in front of the cameras and spoke to me at the most basic human level.
As soon as the first hour and a half had finished, I launched immediately into the second hour and a half and watched, as Kunta tries to escape and tries to escape again and tries to escape again, until finally he is caught by some vile 'slave catchers' (this was a real, well paying occupation at that time), who thwart any potential further attempts at escape by chopping off half of his right foot, crippling him and chaining him, literally and figuratively, to his life of slavery.
In the later episodes Kunta is played by the very talented and accomplished actor John Amos. Amos does a brilliant job of portraying Kunta in such a way that we don't feel that the actors have changed at all. We buy that Kunta has grown into a man, and he retains that same level of wild-eyed enthusiasm for escape and freedom, while being simultaneously weighed down by the responsibilities of his situation and, eventually, his duty as a father and a husband.
As Kunta's offspring grow and Kunta himself ages, we follow his bloodline from generation to generation as they do their best to make a good life for themselves, despite their situation. We watch as some owners are fair and kind, and others are abusive and cruel. We watch with disgust as men are whipped, some nearly to death, for offences against their owners. And we watch with baited breath as the series crawls closer and closer towards the years of the Civil War, and in particular the year of 1865, when Lincoln finally abolishes slavery. And, finally, we watch as the dust of slavery settles and the flames of a new racism rise, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and as another chapter of hate is born.
But what Roots does best of all, and what we can all take away from it, is the spirit and the bravery of this strong nation, even in the face of overwhelming loss and hardship.
The African and African-American men and women of Roots may break, they may bleed, they may fall and they may die, but they hold their heads high, even when they must bow them to avoid a beating. There is pride and there is strength and there is a never wavering hopefulness that carries them through the cruelty and promises them the chance at freedom, as fleeting as it may, at time, seem.
I was in love with every hour of this series. Roots is a show I've been meaning to watch for years, but never got around to, unfairly assuming its age would harm its value. How wrong I was. This is an important, timeless piece of television history which should be experienced by everyone at some point in their life. As an example of the heights that entertainment can reach, as a reminder of our past transgressions against our fellow man, and as a bold statement of the power of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds.
February is Black History Month in the United States and Roots is a great way to celebrate our African-American brothers and sisters. Their spirit, their tenacity and their history. We should all be so lucky to come from such a grand lineage.