Monday, January 2, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Roots: Episodes IV-VI" (1977)

Click here for the first part of my essay on "Roots" episodes I-III.

It took me a little longer to get through the second half of "Roots" than it did the first. Part of the reason was my schedule, but I'll admit my enthusiasm for the miniseries waned the longer it went on. If the first couple of episodes was groundbreaking television, a depiction of slavery and its terrible consequences, by the last couple go-rounds things had devolved into fairly standard soap opera-y stuff with a historical backdrop.

The last episode -- which remains the third most-watched television event -- is a borderline embarrassing litany of shenanigans and double-crosses as the descendants of Kunta Kinte, led by huckster/chicken fighter Chicken George, play a game of one-upsmanship with some local Rebs who have started a sort of proto-Ku Klux Klan.

Still, there's far more good than bad here, and I'm glad I took the time -- nine hours, minus commercial breaks -- to cross "Roots" off my to-do list.

Without getting into a rote recitation of the plot, I'd like to comment on a few things I've noticed about the series.

The first is the tendency to cast actors who start out being way too old for their parts. New members of the family are typically introduced using the adult actor while the character is in his or her teen years -- leading to some laughably incongruous assertions of youth.

Leslie Uggams, as Kunta Kinte's daughter Kizzy, was 34 when the show aired. Kizzy is first shown at age 16. Even more interesting is the heavy age make-up used for the time setting 18 years later when her son, Chicken George, has grown to manhood. At this time the character of Kizzy is the same age Uggams was in real life. Doubtless she did not have gray hair and neck wattles.

Similarly, Ben Vereen was 31 when he played young Chicken George, who is eventually shown in old age.

Georg Stanford Brown, playing Chicken George's son Tom Harvey, was also 34 when he took over his teen role. Though he was rather youthful-looking and fairly believable as a teenager.

I'm not sure if this was a conscious choice to show how hard a life slavery made for, so a 49-year-old woman is depicted as a bent old crone. More likely the producers thought it better to cast a mature actor who could pull off the role, rather than trying to coach up a teen performer and then age them decades hence.

The portrayal of white characters varies throughout the miniseries, though they become more cartoonish as time goes by. Lloyd Bridges is the main heavy of the last couple of episodes as Evan Brent, a thoroughly hateful racist who gleefully joins the Confederate Army and drives Chicken George out of the territory, despite having gained his own freedom. Brent single-handedly creates the KKK by musingly burning some holes in a flour sack with his cigar, which become eye-holes for their masks.

Evan's brother Jemmy is even more over-the-top, begging Tom Harvey's help after deserting from the army, then attempting to rape Tom's wife while he is away fetching clothes to cover Jemmy's Confederate grays.

Brad Davis is allowed a redemptive part as Old George Johnson, a scampy young white thief who is appointed overseer of the Harvey plantation but befriends the slaves, calling them his family. He ends up saving Tom's life by pretending to whip him at the orders of Brent and the other masked nightriders, when actually he flails the ground with the rawhide.

I would like to address the authenticity of "Roots," as written by Alex Haley. Historians have largely discounted the accuracy of his tale of his long-ancestor, Kunta Kinte, passing down his story and African traditions through oral history. Though Haley was always clear that the novel was a fictionalized version of his family history, he insisted the genealogical tree was as he described it.

Personally, I tend to favor his side of this argument, since written documents and histories are highly suspect when it comes to an entire people being ripped from their homeland and forced into subjugation, even adopting the surnames of their white owners. Besides, if Haley's great-great, etc. -grandfather was not Kunta Kinte, I have not doubt his story was very much like it.

More disturbing was the claim, upheld in a court of law, that Haley plagiarized "Roots" the novel from Harold Courlander's "The African." Indeed, the similarities were hard to ignore, and made worse by the fact that several sections of text were repeated virtually verbatim.

The judge in the case even told the BBC, "Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public." Maybe, but it made for some great, memorable television.

3 stars out of four

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