Roots stands as one of the epochal television events of the 20th century, a miniseries (only the second ever aired, after Rich Man, Poor Man) which created a cultural ripple which many would argue continues to this day. Based on Alex Haley's bestseller (and actually put into pre-production before Haley's book had hit the shelves), tracing Haley's long quest to find his ancestors, Roots, though ostensibly the harrowing story of several generations told through the prism of slavery, was, above all, according to producer David L. Wolper, more simply a "family story," thereby escaping the stronghold of any particular socio-political statement it may have made to touch a deeper emotional response in its vast audience.
This handsome new boxed set includes:
Roots, the original miniseres that started it all, following the travails of Kunta Kinte, a young Gambian warrior captured and transported to America where he is given the name Toby and begins a life of servitude and demoralization, though his core strength is never compromised. Starring a 19 year old LeVar Burton in his first professional acting job, the miniseries is filled with a superb array of then-popular film and television stars, including some interesting against-type casting choices, notably "Papa Walton" Ralph Waite as the palpably evil first mate on the slave ship Kunta makes his voyage on, and Lloyd Bridges as a cruel plantation owner. The African Americans in the cast, including Cicely Tyson as Kunta's mother, John Amos as the older Kunta, Leslie Uggams as Kunta's daughter Kizzie, and especially Louis Gossett, Jr. as Fiddler, Kunta's mentor in the new world and Ben Vereen, as Kunta's grandson "Chicken" George, all give performances of depth and passion.
William Blinn, the main adaptor of the book, describes in both the excellent commentary and one of the extras the difficulty he had in how to open the miniseries. The first several attempts involved Haley, in the "current" (read 1970s) time period, attempting to track down his past, which was then told through flashbacks. Thankfully that approach was ultimately not taken, with the series opening with intercuts between Kinte's idyllic, if obviously "uncivilized," life in Africa and the preparations for the slave ship, commanded by Edward Asner. This approach gives the entire first episode a looming foreboding that, sadly, is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the emotional toil that is soon to befall Kinte for the rest of his indentured life.
The first miniseries is filled with so many visceral moments that it becomes overwhelming at times, which certainly is part of the reason it became such a cultural phenomenon on its first airing some 30 years ago: American audiences had simply never seen the rigors of slavery depicted with such unflinching accuracy. After Kinte is captured (a riveting and stomach-pit inducing scene in and of itself), he is then subjected to one humiliating episode after another, including being whipped for not speaking his newly given "Christian" name, Toby, and, much later, having part of his foot lopped off after his third attempt at escape. Both Burton and Amos excel at refusing to portray Kinte as merely a victim (though he obviously was victimized), repeatedly showing Kinte's determination not to forget his African heritage and the freedom to which he was born, something he passes down to his daughter, and through her, to his descendants for generations to come.
Roots: The Next Generations, picks up where the first series left off, right after the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Reconstruction. Roots had been such an unparalleled success that ABC had no problem pouring bucketfuls of money into this sequel, and it actually attracted more A-list stars than the first go-round, including such luminaries as Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and, fittingly, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the African American acting legends and friends of Haley who had originally alerted producer David L. Wolper to Haley's research, ultimately leading to the first miniseries.
If this miniseries lacks the devastating emotional punch of the first, it more than makes up for it in its brilliant depiction of a somewhat "grayer" (no pun intended) moral era, in which blacks were ostensibly "free," though still subject to deeply ingrained prejudices which prevented them from truly participating in the vaunted American Dream. Focusing initially on Kunta's great-grandson, Tom Harvey (Georg Stanford Brown), who settles in Henning, Tennessee (the same town that Haley himself would hear the stories of his ancestors from his grandmother decades later), the series deals with both the antebellum south in general, and issues that affected the Harvey clan in particular, including, interestingly, Harvey's own personal prejudice against lighter-skinned Negroes, whom he does not want his own child to marry. Harvey, though a struggling blacksmith, becomes a leader of the black community, something he then passes on to his son-in-law, who has to deal with the rising terrors of the Ku Klux Klan.
Irene Cara portrays Bertha, Harvey's granddaughter, who, as the 20th century begins, becomes the first of Kinte's descendants to attend college. She ultimately marries Simon Haley (Dorian Harewood), who, after serving in WWI (in a segregated unit, naturally), goes on to teach at the school that would become subsequently famous as the Tuskegee Institute. Simon and Bertha in turn are the parents of Alex Haley, and so the story comes full circle as Alex, first as a child, and then throughout his young adulthood, is regaled with stories of his family's past, and is given the few clues from which he is ultimately able to piece together the seven generations going back to Kunta Kinte himself.
Roots: The Next Generations has a somewhat more epic sweep than the first series, as it deals with two international conflicts (both World Wars), as well as more intimate conflicts within the Harvey and, later, Haley families. In a cast of uniformly brilliant performers, the always surprising Marlon Brando stands out in his stunningly gut-wrenching turn as a Nazi white supremacist whom Haley interviews, showing that as late as the mid 20th century, bigotry was still alive and kicking, even as the Black Power movement was gaining its own steam and was about to burst fully into the American consciousness through the somewhat diametrically opposed strategies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
The law of diminishing returns finally catches up to the saga with Roots: The Gift, a 1988 Christmas special bringing back Burton and Gossett as Kunta and Fiddler, as they accompany their master to another plantation to "celebrate" the holiday, becoming embroiled with an Underground Railroad plot to free slaves. While this shorter one-shot certainly doesn't shy from tugging at the heartstrings, actually succeeding a time or two as it delves deeper into the relationship between Kunta and Fiddler, it lacks the sweep and insight of the first two miniseries and frankly feels like a patent ratings ploy cobbled together after the "real" story had already been told. It might be of particular interest to Star Trek fans, however, as it features an odd assortment of actors who starred in various Trek outings, including not only Burton, but Kate Mulgrew, Tim Russ and Avery Brooks.
Roots: The Legacy is a 2 disc bonus of extra features and featurettes, including the vintage Gossett-hosted retrospective broadcast one year after the original miniseries. Also included are three featurettes detailing the adaptation and filming of the original as well as its impact, Burton's original (black and white) screentest, as well as a fascinating early 70s David Frost interview with Haley, made as Haley was piecing together his story but before the book had been written. To hear how Haley was able to ferret out his genealogy based on amazingly few details will give goosebumps to anyone who has ever tried to trace their ancestry. Hearing how each African tribe has griots (elders who orally preserve the histories of the tribe) who can literally recite untold generations' worth of facts is awe-inspiring.
Packaging caveat: The several discs of this set come housed in a sturdy cardboard box. However, the discs themselves are encased in flimsy cardboard foldouts, with slots for the discs to slide into. My package arrived with all the discs out of their slots, some scratched, though not damaged enough to prevent viewing.