It is rare that any one television program has such a profound impact or far-reaching influence as Roots did when it aired over 30 years ago on ABC, but it truly was a pivotal moment in history. I was in the third grade, and my mother, in what was either infinite wisdom or blind naïveté allowed me to stay up way past my bed time on a Sunday night to watch the first episode of the television mini-series based on Alex Haley's Pultizer Prize winning book. The next morning at school, I told all the kids about the show that I watched. None of their parents had let them watch Roots, so I, in one of my earliest roles as both a storyteller and a critic, acted out as much of the first episode as possible on the playground.
The next day, before I could get to the playground and tell the other kids about what happened to Kunta Kinte on the ship, or how he had been sold into slavery, or how he was whipped until he called himself Toby, my teacher pulled me aside and told me that she didn't think it was appropriate for me to be watching Roots, and that I shouldn't tell the other kids about what my mother was so foolishly allowing me to watch. That night, when I told my mother what my teacher said, my dear sweet mommy said, and I quote, "F*ck that bitch." And that is just part of how Roots helped to mold and shape me into the person that I am today.
Spanning over 100 years in the life of one family, Roots begins in West Africa in 1750 with the birth of a child named Kunta Kinte. Seventeen years later, Kunta (LeVar Burton) is abducted by slavers, brought across the ocean to America, where he is sold into slavery. But the epic tale of Roots merely begins with Kunta Kinte, as the mini-series moves through the decades it follows his daughter Kizzy (Leslie Uggams), her son Chicken George (Ben Vereen), and his son Tom (George Stanford Brown), as they struggle with the indignity of slavery, eventually being set free after the Civil War. There is, of course, so much more to the story, but to go into great detail of the plot points and characters would never begin to do justice to the grand scope of the series.
The sum total of each generation's tale is a brilliant television experience that surpasses pretty much anything ever produced, offering a unique glimpse at American history. But part of the triumph of Roots is that no episode, or the generation it chronicles, is any less compelling than another. Roots works not only as a complete series of episodes, but each episode works on its own as well.
At the time of its original airing, Roots was a phenomenon--the highest rated television program in the history of the medium--with much of the country glued to their TV sets for eight consecutive nights. What made the show successful, beyond the writing and the acting, was that it helped to reveal the truth behind the often rose-colored version of history that is spoon fed to America. Sure, we all knew that there were slaves in this country, but that knowledge seldom went past the dismissive recognition of "yes, we know it happened, but let's move on to another topic." The reality of slavery--the brutal honest truth of what it really meant in terms of human beings, in what blacks were forced to endure, and in what many whites inflicted upon blacks--was something that was collectively glossed over in this country. Slavery was a gaping, festering wound, riddled with an infection that afflicted every person living in this country. It effected how blacks were viewed and treated, exacting a heavy toll of shattered self worth on multiple generations of slaves and their descendants, while simultaneously infecting many white people with the diseased notion that their skin color made them superior. But Roots, in its own unique way, helped to set in motion the sort of dialog and awareness needed to begin the healing process.
More than anything, Roots did something that most of the chapters of most of the history books failed to do. It made slavery about human beings, not property. It allowed black people to finally see themselves and be seen in a way other than as the dehumanizing footnotes American history had portrayed them to be. For me, as child, it forever changed how I would see myself, my family, and the world around me.
Roots is presented full frame. The picture quality is crisp, with a solid transfer.
Roots is presented in Dolby Digital mono.
Roots was first released on DVD in 2002 in a 25th Anniversary edition, that included cast and crew audio commentaries with video option on each episode, and a short documentary called Remembering Roots. This 30th Anniversary edition basically repackages all of that material, while throwing in another short, all-new doc, Crossing Over: How Roots Captivated an Entire Nation. The combined sum total of the audio commentaries and documentaries offers interesting insights into how the series came to be, and the impact it had.
I firmly believe that Roots is one of those programs that everyone should own, and that families should sit and watch it together at least once every few years. But here's the deal: if you already have the 25 Anniversary edition, don't bother with this upgrade, the additional supplementary material is not worth the upgrade. If you don't already own Roots, you may, however, want to hold off on purchasing it for the time being. Later this year Roots: The Next Generation will be released on DVD for the first time, and there is supposed to be a massive box set that includes both series, as well as a bunch of bonus material. If that's the case, you're better off saving your money for the time being. But those are the only reasons for not buying this set.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]