In my recent review of Roots: The Complete Collection, I spoke of the law of diminishing returns finally catching up with the series as the various sequels continued through the years. Fortunately, that law is soundly repudiated in this well mounted and superbly performed miniseries featuring Alex Haley's paternal grandmother (the original Roots series focused on Haley's matrilineage). Perhaps because it centers on one individual's life, as opposed to the multi-generational span of the original two Roots miniseries, Queen, while lacking some of the visceral impact of its progenitors, actually has more sustained emotional impact as it traces the history of a mixed race woman who spends her life trying to figure out where exactly she fits in.
The series opens with the impending marriage of slaves belonging to President Andrew Jackson's son, and quickly develops the relationship between a plantation owner's son (Tim Daly) and slave Easter (Jasmine Guy). Though Daly ends up marrying a proper (and wealthy) Southern belle portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, he carries on a lifelong affair with Easter, which results in the birth of Queen. The layers of relationship between Daly, Clarkson, Guy and (ultimately) Halle Berry as the adult Queen are all explored with a surprising amount of nuance and depth, sometimes with as little as a glare or knowing glance between the characters.
Queen's tribulations start early, as she quickly realizes she's not as black as her fellow slaves, and though she is taken into the "big house" (the main plantation house) to be personal slave to Daly and Clarkson's daughter (Jane Krakowski), she spends her formative years trying to discern if Daly is indeed her real father. Things quickly turn ugly and more convoluted with the advent of the Civil War, dealt with here mostly as it affects the Daly plantation and both races living there. The family matriarch (an excellent performance by an Emmy nominated Ann-Margret) sees her family's fortunes crumbling around her and episode one ends with her telling Queen that the old ways are over and it's probably best for Queen to find some other place to live.
The second and third episodes find Queen, after some Reconstruction run-ins with various white folks not quite at ease with granting blacks full citizenship, finally journeying away from the plantation and discovering to her short-lived delight that she can pass for white. The climax of her pretensions is rather ugly, and leads her to attempt to find solace, which she does in a way, in a black church, which gets her employment at the home of two spinsters (including Sada Thompson in a wonderfully understated performance).
Queen soon finds herself involved with a black hired hand (Dennis Haysbert), by whom she eventually becomes pregnant. Thompson's motives vis a vis the child are somewhat circumspect and Queen decides she must escape the relative comforts of her employer's home. This leads to the one really shocking moment of the miniseries involving Haysbert's ultimate fate, probably the only section of this miniseries that equals the stomach-pit inducing effects of some of the original Roots sequences involving Kunta Kinte's capture and the various tortures he undergoes as a slave.
The miniseries shies away from any easy answers, or happy endings, as Queen's travails actually devolve to the point where she is institutionalized. With some fine supporting work by Danny Glover as Queen's husband Alec Haley in the final third of the movie, though Queen perhaps never finds an answer to her quest for belonging, she is at least moderately at peace with the place in which she finds herself.
The miniseries is anchored by one fine performance after another, headed of course by Berry in a particularly fine portrayal which reveals Queen's haughtiness and naivete, sometimes at the same moment. But virtually everyone in the cast is pitch-perfect, sometimes surprisingly so. Clarkson manages to find both vinegar and honey in her portrayal of a southern wife watching her husband's lifelong affair with a slave, and stalwarts Ossie Davis and Paul Winfield bring some dignity to their basically thankless roles as household slaves. Jasmine Guy is very appealing as Easter, showing both her coquettish side as well as her anger at never being able to fully share her lover's (or daughter's) life.
There are a couple of minor quibbles with this production: Raven-Symone as the young Queen is just a little too precious, with a frozen smile (aside from the two scenes where she cries) to create much empathy, and Martin Sheen seems to be channeling Thomas Mitchell from Gone With the Wind with his Irish brogue and brusque manner as Daly's father and Ann-Margret's husband. Also, there's never really a satisfactory explanation for what causes Queen's nervous breakdown, though a household fire seems to be the triggering event. Yes, she's high strung, willful and stubborn, and she has serious separation issues with her first son Abner, but she's been that from day one as far as the miniseries is concerned, so when she is suddenly packed off to a dilapidated mental institution toward the end of the miniseries, it's somewhat of a shock.
Overall, though, Queen provides a beautifully realized and touching account of the other side of Alex Haley's family story, and it will be appreciated by Roots fans everywhere.
The full frame image is very sharp, with only occasional graininess (for some reason limited mostly to the third episode). Color and contrast are both exceptional, and there's little if any damage to the source elements.
The standard stereo soundtrack is also well realized. Michael Small's score is occasionally cloying, and I certainly can't be the only one who noticed that one of the variations of his main theme is awfully reminiscent (down the the harmonica lead) of "Moon River."
None are offered.
Roots aficianados are certainly going to want to watch this excellent historical drama. But any lover of lushly mounted yet intimate biographical films will most likely deeply appreciate Queen. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet