I was at a Video store today, and asked the young lady at the counter to see if Roots was in. While waiting for the information to come up, I asked about what she thought of the DVD. She mentioned that she was vaguely familiar with the existence of a book, then her face brightened and you could see the light-bulb flashing over her head.
“That’s the show with Geordi La Forge from Star Trek!” she said with a smile.
After I picked my jaw off the ground, I thanked her and left with a bemused look on my face. You see, I had first seen Roots in 1977 when I was a teenager, having to argue with my parents about it both because of the graphic nature of the series and because it was on pretty late. I persuaded them, and was mesmerised and deeply moved by the first two episodes. In it I saw a new actor named Levar Burton, who was playing the main character, Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka warrior from the village of Juffure in the Gambia. His performance and his interaction with Louis Gossett, Jr. (who played Fiddler) was unforgettable, and at times had me in tears.
Then twelve years later Start Trek:TNG came out, and one of the characters was immediately recognisable as Kunta Kinte! This put a smile on my face, and made me hopeful that there would be good performances in the new series. Anyway, the response of the lady at the Video store, juxtaposed with my memories of my response in a similar situation, added an interesting perspective to my own feelings about Levar Burton and his perceived importance in his acting career. Also, I had just had a birthday so I was feeling a bit older, and this definitely contributed to it.
This led me to ask others, especially younger people, about what they knew or had heard about Roots. Very few knew much, and I was especially surprised about the number of African-Americans who knew little. So I decided to get a copy and watch it again, both to see how it would affect me as an adult and to determine how relevant it was to today’s world.
When I finally found a copy to rent last Friday, I started watching it. At about 5 am the next morning I turned it off and went to bed. Then I got up and watched the rest of it. The next day I watched those sections that I liked the best over again. Currently I have lent it to a friend here, who had seen parts of it, but not some of the best parts.
Given the above, it should not be surprising that I was still emotionally and spiritually affected by the mini-series. It had lost none of its impact, was as relevant as it had been 29 years ago, and the performances seemed as strong, nuanced, and sincere as ever. What it says about hope, strength of character, and the power of family is as relevant and important as it has always been. The message it gives about ordinary people and how they are moulded by their culture into morally evil acts and attitudes is also as true as ever, as evidenced by everything from World War Two Germany, through Yugoslavia, to the Middle East conflict of today. Man’s inhumanity to man never seems to leave us, and Roots has a strong message as to what simple people can do to struggle against this.
For those considering whether to watch it, here are a few relevant points:
- 130 million people watched it, out of about 203 million ciitizen in the U.S. Considering that 23 million were African-Americans, most people who watched it were White, who like me saw the slavery issue in a new and compelling way. The fact that one of the worst winter storms of the century was going on didn’t hurt viewing either, 😉
- not counting Emmy’s, it won four major awards,
- it also won 9 Emmy’s, including Outstanding Limited Series, Music, Directing, etc. It was nominated in 28 other categories,
- it had an unusually large collection of pretty good actors from that time, including
- Maya Angelou as Kunta’s grandmother (yes, the writer and social activist)
- Moses Gunn as the Kintanga (of Broadway and theatrical fame)
- Ed Asner as the skipper of the Lord Ligonear
- O. J. Simpson in a bit part
- Ralph Waite as Asner’s first mate (he was John Walton, the wise and understanding father in The Waltons; it was surreal to see him as a slaver)
- Louis Gossett, Jr. as Fiddler (this was the best dramatic role I have ever seen him play)
- Lorne Greene as a plantation owner
- John Amos as the elder Kunta Kinte (as good in his role as LeVar was as the teenager)
- Sandy Duncan
- Leslie Uggams as Kunta’s daughter Kizzie (a wonderful performance)
- Scatman Crothers (the cook in The Shining)
- Ben Vereen as Kunta’s grandson, Chicken George
- Lloyd Bridges
- Brad Davis (he starred in Midnight Express)
- Burl Ives
- Chuck Conners
- Richard Farnsworth
- Yaphet Kotto (he played Parker in Alien)
- Cicely Tyson (Kunta’s mother, who also gave a good performance)
- those who acted in Roots often put out a special effort in their performances, due to the family and cultural history that many of them lived through. Malcolm X had died 12 years before, Martin Luther King had been assassinated only 9 years before, and the Civil Rights Movement still had a lot of work to do (and still does).
- the book won a Pulitzer, and the auther Alex Haley was heavily involved in how the series was written and produced.
In my opinion it is one of the greatest stories with one of the most important messages told on the screen in my lifetime. It was possibly the first TV or movie production showing what slavery was like from the points of view of free people being enslaved, those who enslaved them, and those generations which followed and evolved their relationships as masters and slaves. This series showed that African-Americans have a history that includes rich and valuable traditions and values.
Considering that about 3000 African-American people came to Atlantic Canada during the American Revolution, and as many of them were freed slaves or were slaves who escaped to the north, this story has direct relevance to us.
BY the way, this came up because a reconstruction of the coastal schooner Amistad came into out harbour last week. This caused me to watch the movie again (it is a very good movie), and then to watch Roots to compare the two, with predictable results. I’ll put up a few images soon.
“When you start about family, about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth.” Alex Haley