39 Roots

roots seriesFinally,
finally, I finished watching Roots! I had never seen the six-part 1977 miniseries, so after finishing the book earlier this year it was high on my must-watch list. It was, shall I say, difficult to get through, not because of the harrowing story or the reminder of our nation’s violent history, but because it is so cheesy. I hate to say that about one of the most important pieces of television produced, and I respect everything it did to bring light to the harsh reality of slavery, but wow, it does not hold up for a 21st century audience.

It may be unfair for me to judge 70s movie technology by today’s standards, but that’s not really what’s at stake here. There are plenty of movies – Soylent Green, Terminator 2, Roman Holiday – whose storytelling, direction, and acting stand strong even when held up against our more advanced expectations. The problem is not with the set design or fight choreography or makeup (though, even LeVar Burton admits the latter is terrible!), the problem is what the directors and actors do with this story.

I would never expect that a 700-page novel be translated 100% faithfully to the screen, so I am allowing for a bit of digression here. What the series lacks, though, is the feeling of those 700 pages. In the book we spend a good amount of time with Kunta as a boy, learning what is expected of him to become a Mandinka man and warrior. This serves to show all he loses when he’s captured by slave traders – not just his homeland, but his pride, dignity, and everything he hoped to become. Young Kunta in the miniseries is a happy-go-lucky kid, tending to his goats, cocksure in his wrestling abilities, and engaging in tickle fights with his fellow manhood trainees. (That happened, I kid you not.)

Far more time is spent in these early episodes on the feelings of the white slave traders than is revealed in the book. Ed Asner is captain of the ship taking Kunta to America and we are assured that he has misgivings about his job. I assume producers wished to placate white audiences by asserting #NotAllWhites, but this is not their story and the feelings of those who were complacent in the atrocities committed against the African people have no place here.

There are certain things the series does do well, most notably giving more focus to Kizzy than was afforded in the book. Her adult story is fleshed out with the introduction of a suitor who continues to pursue her despite her protests, only to wear her down and find himself in her bed. (The implications of this interaction rankle my feminist feathers, but that’s another rant for another day.) When her beau proposes marriage, Kizzy hesitantly accepts, only to withdraw her hand once she sees his abject submission at the feet of his massa. Kizzy remembers his father’s strength and pride and knows she can never be with someone content to live the life of a slave.

Ben Vereen is the perfect choice to play Kizzy’s son Chicken George. His arrogance and preening perfectly capture the book’s portrayal of a boy who has only known the life of a slave, but somehow believes he is above it. His rude awakening comes when massa Tom Moore (Tom Lea, in the book) gives him up as part of his losses during a cockfight with an Englishman. When Chicken George returns after being forcefully separated from his wife Matilda and their children, he is a changed man and Vereen plays him with a solemnity and grace that is a 180° turn from the youthful George of the previous episode. It says something about Vereen’s performance that Chicken George’s story was my least favorite in the book, but by far the best in the series.

This weekend The History Channel debuts a remake of Roots. I look forward to seeing it and hope that it gives a bit more depth to Kunta’s life as a boy and an adult and spends less time on the feelings of the slave traders and owners. It is interesting that the most famous scene of the 1977 series – where Kunta is whipped until he accepts his slave name “Toby” – does not appear in the book. I suppose the filmmakers needed one pivotal scene to get across to audiences all that Kunta was giving up. I’m curious to see if a version of this scene will appear in the new series or if it will forgo the shock value and focus on the daily injustices of slave life. While I appreciate all the 1977 version did to expose slavery, I know this story can be told much better. I have high hopes that it will.

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