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Roots: 25th Anniversary Edition
It's certainly true that Roots represented a national event in television, and a milestone in many American lives. Dramatizing the shared heritage of millions of African Americans in an ennobling fashion, it brought together dozens of black actors to create an accurate, if simplified, picture of several generations in one black family, as documented in Alex Haley's book.
In the late seventies, television fell in love with the miniseries. Some were dogs (remember Amerika?) but massive multi-actor sagas like Holocaust and The Day After captured the imagination of the public, turning the country into a huge village where everyone pondered the same issues at the same time. A very high-class show from David Wolper, a former documentarian with success in features (The Bridge at Remagen) and nature programming, Roots sprawled across a near ten-hour length with excellent production values and a literate script overseen by Alex Haley.
Roots is about building dignity out of outrage and bitterness, and for 1977 television, it was pretty darn progressive. Every manner of negative expletive for blacks is used, but in a historical context that expresses the abject debasement that slavery was. The white villains are well-rounded but still the people of their time. Ralph Waite and Vic Morrow play a loathesome slaver and a brutal slavemaster, yet are presented as representative of wholesale attitudes instead of being Evil personified. Slave ship captain Edward Asner gets a lot of attention being disgusted and repulsed over the immorality of what he's taking part in, and he's allotted some sympathy for his discomfort, but he condemns himself by going with the flow of his society. This counters the old Gone With the Wind attitude taken that Individuals were responsible, instead of a corrupt society.
The much-debated idea is presented that America began, grew, developed and flourished as a racist nation, which thrived in no small part because of the suffering of exploited slaves. American movies about the issue had never quite settled on that viewpoint before and preferred to make excuses or change the subject, or concentrate on special situations about 'good' whites. The message is that American is tainted, and that no amount of rationalizing can change it. Roots may be PC, but it's historically accurate and good educational material.
So the theme of the show is defiance, defeat, opposition and rebellion. Kunta Kinte and his captive brothers swear death and destruction to the oppressors, and live and die for generations of struggle and suffering. In the end, they're assimilated, but without being accepted as full Americans or even granted full human rights by the rest of their fellow citizens.
As a Swedish-American by blood, I can watch Jan Troell's The Emigrants and have a small feeling that 'my story is being told', even though my grandfather came to America in 1907 as a railroad worker and had no frontier experience. American Blacks were rarely represented in large-budgeted shows at all until the 1960s, so when Roots told their collective story, the interest was high and the impact was powerful. The story is somewhat sanitized (Africa does look awfully idealized) but the point was not to present absolute naturalistic truth, but to be hopeful and uplifting, to counter Gone With the Wind, a decade of Blaxploitation, and debasing trash like Mandingo. Gee, aren't we glad the Academy gave Dino De Laurentiis a special Oscar ... for what?!
Roots has a parade of whites playing mostly racists, opposite the cream of the decade's Black acting talent who play righteous, quietly suffering and rebellious African slaves. LeVar Burton holds together the first half of the show, until he's replaced by a dignified John Amos as an older Kunta Kinte. Africa is graced with the presence of Moses Gunn, Maya Angelou, Ji-Tu Cumbuka and Cicely Tyson. Hari Rhodes (of Daktari) somehow becomes Harry Rhodes for this cast list; a look at the IMDB shows most of the Black cast to have very interesting careers that naturally include less-than-ideal parts in White-oriented films. They'll all there to be enjoyed, from Scatman Crothers to O.J. Simpson, who's just fine in his two minutes of footage. Leslie Uggams and Ben Vereen dominate as Kunta Kinte's descendants, who finally manage some measure of freedom in America. A look at the cast list in at the Roots IMDB listing shows the prodigious number of prominent black actors involved.
The white cast got the opportunity to wave their liberal credentials, while providing a wide range of names for marquee value. TV staples Lloyd Bridges and Carolyn Jones were joined by personalities as diverse as Chuck Connors, Sandy Duncan, George Hamilton, Burl Ives, Ian McShane, John Schuck and Lynda Day George.
By length alone, a miniseries can convince audiences of its importance just by wearing them down, but Roots stays interesting and coherent throughout. Even at ten hours, the pace is fast. The necessity of getting across essential exposition results in some scenes playing like history lessons or simplified primers (as when the bitterness toward English taxation is hurriedly covered in part two). But the multigenerational, follow-the-family formula keeps a continuity of interest. Many must have been the Black households where parents were able to inspire their children with their heritage by watching Roots as a family activity ... and it must have had a positive formative effect on a lot of minds. As a country, I don't think we're getting anything near the quality of broadcast programming now, as we were back in 1977 with Roots.
Warner Home Video's DVD set of Roots is a giant undertaking well-delivered. Three discs each have an episode per side; unlike other miniseries I've seen on DVD, the compression rate is excellent, and the shows look great. Most television shows from this period look pretty miserable, but Roots has rich colors and a terrific visual presence.
The packaging is rather nicely designed, once you get by the ususal drawback of a cardboard case that won't hold up to anything but delicate handling. Inside a slipcover is a threefold stack of doublesided discs that spreads nicely out, with the dozens of chapter stops clearly listed.
There's a running commentary through most of the show, which Savant could only sample. With so many participants, only the James Bond docus are mounted on a larger scale. 1 A frail Edward Asner is obviously a man very sensitive to the race issue, but his opening comments are so carefully measured that he sounds as if he's reading from a script. LeVar Burton's worshipful praise for his co-actors becomes redundant, but his case for the importance of the show does not, especially his observation that there's now a new generation untouched by Roots. David Wolper's less theatrical commentary fully details how he came to produce the piece (the second miniseries after Rich Man, Poor Man, he says).
The disc has a visual commentary feature that impressed Savant. As you play a side with commentary, a Roots logo shows up from time to time. By hitting the Video Option remote key, the scene on screen shrinks to a small rectangle, revealing Asner or Burton speaking the commentary. You can also access these moments (looks like there's three to a side) from the menu. It's a potentially very interesting feature - a commentary that can double as an interview.
The final side contains a new Docu called Remembering Roots, a very sentimental and well-meaning collection of cast & creator reminiscences. The disc lists an interactive family tree as a DVD-Rom extra, but like most of these extras, it works only on PC's and not Macs. Not very helpful.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: full-length commentaries, docu, interactive Family Tree (PC DVD Rom only)
Packaging: Folding cardboard case
Reviewed: February 5, 2002
1. Commentary participants are: David L. Wolper, Edward Asner, LeVar Burton, Cicely Tyson, directors David Greene and John Erman, Production Designer Jan Scott, Casting director Lynn Stalmaster, John Amos, Beverly Todd, Gary Collins, Sandy Duncan, Lawrence-Hilton Jones, John Schuck, Leslie Uggams, director Marvin Chomsky, writer William Blinn, Georg Stanford Brown, and Lynne Moody,