He was 15 when this television event hit the airwaves, and yet Judge Bill Gibron's memory of the phenomenon is weak at best. Thankfully, this impressive DVD package brings it all back with lots of important context.
The TV Event of the '70s Survives Three Decades of Change
You know the old saying, "You can't capture lightning in a bottle?" The same sentiment should apply to old event television. Before any boob tube fan knew what a "miniseries" was, the concept of watching the same show several nights in a row seemed downright ludicrous. TV viewing was typically split up into specific days of the week in coordination with certain time slots. You had your favorites and you ritualized your life around them. But this new elongated format required a different dedication, one that asked you to avoid your rote reasons for sitting in front of the idiot box and actually invest your time in something day in and out. In the case of the 1977 historical epic Roots, the suits at ABC didn't utilize the serialized format out of a sense of novelty or entertainment altruism. In truth, they feared that members of the home audience—make that Caucasian members of the Nielsen Families—would never come back week after week for a lesson in their own despicable acts of racial discrimination. Best to get it all out of the way in one shot and hope for the best, some executive thought. In truth, their plan worked brilliantly. Building from night to night, the finale went on to become the third-highest rated television event of all time. More importantly, Roots opened up a long-dead line of dialogue between the still suspicious races. Even after the turbulence of the '60s, America was still a country at race war. For blacks, the book and miniseries was confirmation of centuries of persecution and cultural mistrust. For whites, it was a clear cut wake-up call to their problematic past.
The main narrative thread remains author Alex Haley's search for his ancestors. The story begins in Africa, with the birth of young Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Destined to be a great leader among his tribe, the boy is suddenly captured by slavers working for colonial merchants. Sent to America aboard a ship piloted by the conscientious Captain Davies (Ed Asner, Lou Grant), Kunta is sold into bondage. He finds himself on a tobacco plantation owned by John Reynolds (Lorne Greene, Bonanza) and working under the tutelage of house servant Fiddler (Louis Gossett, Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman). It's not long before he tries to escape and suffers a horrendous beating at the hands of field foreman Mr. Ames (Vic Morrow, Combat!). This does not break his spirit, however. As Kunta, now grown and renamed Toby (John Amos, Good Times) continues to seek his autonomy, he marries, and has a daughter named Kizzy (Leslie Uggams). She's eventually sold off to degenerate neighbor Mr. Moore (Chuck Connors, The Rifleman), where she's advanced on and raped. She gives birth to a son, "Chicken" George (Ben Vereen, All That Jazz), who ends up leading the rest of his kin to freedom after the end of the Civil War. Within each of these major plot points, several individual stories simmer, each illustrating an important element of black history or heritage.
But this is not a documentary. The first thing you need to know about Roots is that it really isn't a factual account of Haley's family tree. Certainly, names and connections are fairly authentic, but the rest of the narrative is made up of dramatics, suppositions, and iconography. Remember, this was America's first in-depth look at its slave past, and producer David L. Wolper was committed to shedding light on as many crucial conceits as possible. Sure, the African villages are too prefab and pretty, looking like something out of Disney's Jungle Cruise, and the colonial estates our characters co-exist on have a real Williamsburg vibe about their recreationist realism, but this was Me Decade television, still mired in massive censorship and very strict standards and practices. Wolper had to get the message across without confronting almost ridiculous restrictions—and Roots was still considered a very scandalous presentation (female nudity, bloody whippings). Even more disconcerting—especially for a pro-PC viewer of today—is the massive use of the racial slurs and stereotypes. Granted, the N-word is never utilized gratuitously, and sequences of slave rape and disfigurement are keeping with the truth of the past. Still, you can sense Roots pushing, from time to time, to make more than a point. Indeed, sometimes it seems like the show is trying to apologize and publicly scourge itself on behalf of 400 years of intolerance.
Luckily, the performances get us over many of the mea culpa moments. For his first major acting role, LeVar Burton is very good as Kunta Kinte, especially since the character is given little to do except look frightened or ferocious. There is a burning anger in this actor's eyes that matches the material perfectly. Even better are Louis Gossett, Jr. and Ben Vereen as Fiddler and "Chicken" George, respectively. Saddled with the task of being the "yessa massa" face of plantation life, Gossett gives a startlingly nuanced performance. There are layers to what he is doing, no matter if he is warning Kunta about obeying the bosses, or showing his own sly disrespect for the bigots in charge. But when he learns of his charge's desire to escape, the look of defeat on his face is flawless. Vereen doesn't have to work that hard, but he does have to mix inevitability with the still-novel notion of being a free man. By combining his inherent joviality with an equally impressive sense of narrative destiny, we get a depth that few other actors here can manage. On the periphery, Ed Asner is interesting as the sea captain who can't really connect to the concept of being a slaver, while Ralph Waite, Vic Morrow, and Chuck Connors are nicely nasty as your prototypical 18th Century cads. There are some odd casting choices along the way—Sandy Duncan as Missy Reynolds, Lloyd Bridges as the most un-Southern Confederate ever, and O.J. Simpson as a nomadic African tribesman—and a few clunker turns by those taking their moment far too seriously but, for the most part, the characterizations are clear, clever, and complimentary to the series' main strategy.
As for the actual filmmaking, Roots can't help but suffer from the standard TV movie malady of the medium shot. Nothing says backlot better than holding in tight on a supposed mob of people and, all throughout the narrative, from the opening sequences in the bush to the final moments on the open plains of Tennessee, the directors continually frame the action too closely. The DVD transfer also maintains those annoying commercial fadeouts, the instances of high tension or forced foreshadowing where something is said or done, only to be followed by ominous music and an eventual dissolve to black. It really destroys the mood. On the positive side, this stuff still works. Even as the opening trip across the ocean drags on (Amistad, this ain't), we find ourselves getting caught up in the characters and their unfortunate fates. By the time Fiddler finds out he's been betrayed, we want to go on and experience the rest of the saga. Some of it is very intense (Toby's "hobbling"), while other moments come across as rather lame (the stagy Civil War material). Still, we avoid the evident manipulation to see the truth behind the pat preclusions and generalizations. Roots was indeed an important moment in the entertainment medium. It proved that almost any subject matter—from slavery to the Holocaust—could find an eager audience ready to cast aside their traditional viewing patterns and get lost in a several-part production. It was, and remains, full-blown history.
In 2002, Warner Brothers released a three-disc DVD set of Roots containing all eight episodes remastered and remixed, a collection of interesting added content (commentaries, behind-the-scenes documentaries) and a compendium of cast and crew reminiscences. Now, five years later, the title has been reconfigured with better audio and visual elements, a new multi-disc presentation to preserve the new technical specs, and a freshly forged 2007 documentary. From a strict sound and vision approach, this new version of the title is terrific. By dividing the episodes up, one per DVD side (mimicking the original release) compression is kept low, resulting in a wonderful 1.33:1 full-screen image. While many shows from the past can look faded and dated, Roots has moments that look brand spanking new. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 is flat and formless, but that was TV 30 years ago. Anyone hoping Quincy Jones's famous score would get a remix will be rather disappointed. As for the added content, the commentaries are handled in two different ways. There is a full-length format featuring many members of the production, as well as video vignettes from specific performers. Ed Asner seems a tad too method in his recollections, while LeVar Burton, Cicely Tyson, and Leslie Uggams put on their best stoic stance to discuss their work. Most of the comments are praise-oriented and very self-congratulatory, but this is one of the few instances where such a position is acceptable. As for the featurettes, the 2002 document is wonderfully evocative, as is its 2007 companion piece. The original feature helps us understand Roots' impact from the inside. The new offering, focusing on the cultural phenomenon, helps us understand the outer force of the miniseries.
Though it does have its moments of decades-old awkwardness, there is still enough heart and history in Roots to demand post-millennial attention. Certainly it is no longer opening our eyes to issues in our past that we are purposefully avoiding, nor is it the only beacon of enlightenment in a medium mired by out of sight, out of mind blinders. We are now immersed in our awful, shameful history and are constantly seeking ways to commemorate and correct those detours on the social learning curve. This benevolent blockbuster is where it all started. For that alone, it deserves its spot in the legacy of television. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• All-New 2007 Documentary -- "Crossing Over: How Roots Captivated An Entire Nation"
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