Monday, December 26, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Roots: Parts I-III" (1977)

Something that's been on my bucket list for quite a long time is to see "Roots," the iconic 1977 television miniseries based on the best-selling novel by Alex Haley. Even today, its finale ranks as the third most-watched TV episode of all time. Missing out on it for someone of my generation is akin to never seeing the last episode of "M*A*S*H*" or the movie "Grease."

Yes, I know this is a website for movie criticism, but I have made television exceptions for Reeling Backward before. And such a huge storytelling arc, unfolding over seven episodes running more than 10 hours (sans commercials), has an epic, cinematic feel to it worthy of serious consideration.

Plus, it's my damn column, so neener-neener.

I'm watching "Roots" via DVDs from Netflix -- no streaming available -- so I'm wrapping them up into three separate columns.

The first thing I want to note about "Roots" is that I have seen it -- at least a tiny bit. I saw part of the episode where African warrior-turned-slave Kunta Kinte is captured after an escape attempt, and the slave hunters cut off part of his foot to ensure he can never run away again.

I was a little kid, first grade probably, and was pretty horrified (I remember the scene being much more graphic than it really is). I don't recall if I stopped watching "Roots" because of that, or if my parents quietly ushered me out of the room and made sure I didn't see any more. That was the third episode, and I know I hadn't seen either of the first two episodes with LeVar Burton as young Kunta Kinte.

The thing I most remember about it was the next scene cuts to Kunta lying in bed with his mangled limb wrapped in bloody bandages, and Mr. Brady, playing a doctor, tends to him. Of course, it was actor Robert Reed playing the doctor, but in my young mind I instantly identified him as the kindly patrician of "The Brady Bunch." 'Mr. Brady will put this atrocity right,' I thought.

But Mr. Brady, while perturbed at the injury, only grumbles about the hunters "ruining a perfectly good piece of property." In that moment, I was gobsmacked. How could anyone see the way Kunta was cruelly maimed, and call it destruction of mere property?

But that, of course, is the lesson of slavery, the darkest stain on American history.

My own family, early transplants to the Americas, have a long history of slave ownership -- including, for a time, Frederick Douglass. We also have abolitionists on my grandmother's side of the tree. I can't claim any sense of personal guilt over my ancestors owning slaves, but "Roots" brings home the degradation and subjugation of an entire people.

LeVar Burton, just 20 when the show aired, is a revelation, bringing a mix of childlike wonder and mature nobility to the role. The scene where he is captured by slavers near his village and struggles against the chains lashed to him has an iconic, enduring quality.

I can't say that John Amos, who takes over the role of Kunta when he reaches the age of about 30, is a particularly good match for Burton. Physically, they look almost nothing alike, with the strapping, hook-nosed Amos seeming an unlikely inheritor of Burton's wispy, angelic good looks.

It also seems strange that Kunta makes almost no progression in his command of the English language in the intervening decade or so between episodes two or three.

Louis Gossett Jr. is terrific as Fiddler, an older slave who is a father figure to Kunta, teaching him the hard lessons of life on a plantation. Fiddler harbors a boiling deep anger over the fate of himself and his fellow slaves, but knuckles under to the stern overseer and causes no trouble. Still, he helps Kunta in his first escape attempt, knowing it will bring himself hardship and loss of privileges as the acknowledged leader of the slaves.

Shot for a total budget of $6 million, the production values on "Roots" are somewhat lacking at times. But for television in the mid-1970s, it probably looked astonishingly grandiose.

Obviously, I have lots more to say about "Roots," but it'll have to wait until I've watched a couple more episodes.

3.5 stars out of four

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