Miniseries: “Roots (1977)”

Classic television, no mater how impactful or influential it was at the time, will never truly be seen the same way it once was. The aging process is partially to blame, but so too, is the ever changing nature of the medium it was originally shown on. Television looks nothing like it did way back when, for better and worse. While this all may be true, it doesn’t stop any given program from teaching you so much, and not just about the subject of the program you’re watching. There’s always something to be learned from the past.

The Warner Bros. Television miniseries “Roots”, is an interesting and dated TV program about a subject that still seems to make people uncomfortable to talk about on some level.

This historical drama stars John Amos (“Tamales and Gumbo”, “Mercy for Angels”), Maya Angelou (“Madea’s Family Reunion”, “The Runaway”), Edward Asner (“Love Finds You in Valentine”, “Like a Butterfly”), Lloyd Bridges (“Jane Austen’s Mafia!”, “Seinfeld”), Georg Stanford Brown (“Madea’s Tough Love”, “Electric City”), LaVar Burton (“Transformers: Rescue Bots”, “Perception”), Macdonald Carey (“Days of our Lives”, “A Message from Holly”), Olivia Cole (“First Sunday”, “Murder, She Wrote”), Chuck Connors (“Three Days to a Kill”, “The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw”), Scatman Crothers (“Transformers: The Return of Optimus Prime”, “Rock Odyssey”), Ji-Tu Cumbuka (“CSI”, “Walker, Texas Ranger”), Brad Davis (“The Habitation of Dragons”, “The Player”), Sandy Duncan (“Law & Order: SVU”, “Yo Gabba Gabba!”), Lynda Day George (“Mission: Impossible”, “Blacke’s Magic”), Louis Gossett Jr. (“Extant”, “The Book of Negroes”), Lorne Greene (“The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory”, “Noah’s Ark”), Moses Gunn (“Homicide: Life on the Street”, “No Room for opal”), George Hamilton (“2 Broke Girls”, “The Congressman”), Hilly Hicks (“Love the Earth and Be Healed”, “Hill Street Blues”), Burl Ives (“The Big Country”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (upcoming “31”, “Mercy for Angels”), Carolyn Jones (“The Addams Family”, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)”), Doug McClure (“On West Wikiki”, “Kung Fu: the Legend Continues”), Ian McShane (upcoming episode “Game of Thrones”, “Doctor Thorne”), Lynne Moody (“Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith”, “Crossing Jordan”), Vic Morrorw (“Twilight Zone: The Movie”, “Abenko Green Berets”), Thalmus Rasulala (“Judgement”, “Mom and Dad Save the World”), Robert Reed (Jake and the Fatman”, “The Brady Bunch”), Harry Rhodes (“Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story”, “Donor”), Richard Roundtree (upcoming “Retreat!”, “The Player”), John Shuck (“Closer to God”, “Zeke and Luther”), Paul Shenar (“The Big Blue”, “Time Out for Dad”), O.J. Simpson (“ADHDtv: With Lew Marklin”, “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult”), Madge Sinclair (“The Lion King”, “Queen”), Cicely Tyson (“How to Get Away with Murder”, “House of Cards”), Leslie Uggams (“Empire”, “Deadpool”), Ben Vereen (upcoming “The Rocky Horror Picture Show (2016)”, “Time Out of Mind”), Ralph Waite (“NCIS”, “The Waltons”), William Watson (“It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive”, “Magnum, P.I.”), and Renn Woods (“Church”, “The Blue Hour”).

The miniseries was developed by William Blinn (“Purple Rain”, “Brian’s Song (1972)”) with multiple people writing the episodes. It is based on the novel of the same name by Alex Haley.

The miniseries originally aired from Jan 23-30, 1977 on ABC. The miniseries would go on to be be nominated for 37 Emmy Awards; winning nine, two Golden Globe Awards; winning one, and a Peabody Award among several other wins and nominations.

At long last I have finally seen this film! In some ways in think I’d just resigned myself to the idea that I would never get to watch this, and then the opportunity presented itself. I was at this little place called Costco and there it sat, on top of many more copies of this classic program, and amongst so many other films, TV shows, and books. I couldn’t say no! It was impulsive, and I really had no idea if I’d like it even a little bit, but it was a pretty good price, so why not?! As it would turn out, because I’m sure I forgot about this at the time it was bought, the new “reimagined” (remake, which is what it is no matter what marketing is used), was going to be debuting this year. Which is also what makes this timing so perfect! The remake debuted tonight (which you’ll read about after it ends and I write about it), and while this review of the original miniseries isn’t about comparing and contrasting what could be done, the remakes review may do that a lot. It all just depends. Regardless, it finds us here on this day, the day of the unnecessary remake! So before I get too preoccupied with the new miniseries, let’s see what I thought of the original.

When I was planning this out, I thought I’d have a section that talked about what it must’ve been like when this program aired in 1977 and what it looks like today, but then I realized that that would be somewhat silly. Each area seemed to already encompass this notion, so it was really more of an overall theme. With that in mind, time to dive into this epic classic story!

Like with anything that’s from almost 40 years ago or even older, the sound and look, (the quality of the finished film or television program), is going to be vastly different than what one is used to currently. It’s like with an old VHS that’s been watched a lot. This problem, isn’t really a problem in the traditional sense, but more something that can become a kind of distraction. I didn’t exactly go into this series expecting an old look, but when watching it for the first hour, and then the rest of it, I wasn’t at all surprised. In fact I did get used to it quite quickly, but there were several moments where I suddenly found myself getting pulled out of the story because something sounded off or looked strange. The color is certainly surprising in places. In this particular case, especially for me, it’s just a perk. Seeing how something changes over time with the advancement in technology, and what it takes to preserve something for viewers many years later. It definitely has me wondering what watching TV was like at this time. Did the quality look like this, or look more pristine, as that’s all viewers knew then?

I’m not sure where this falls on the viewing experience, but it’s certainly an interesting aspect to keep note of. The timeline of this miniseries, one is off historically in at least one place, but it covers a lot of ground by including a lot of major time jumps. 14, 17, and 20 years were skipped at least once per episode. It certainly made the viewing experience a bit more random than I was expecting. This, in general, makes sense, as the book itself is huge, and the time period covered is at least 100 years, but I find that it didn’t keep it from being distracting and a bit jarring. I’ve never read the book, although I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do so courtesy of my local thrift stores, and it does make me wonder how much time was covered in Haley’s original source material. When he was doing his research was he only able to account for certain decades? Did he deliberately decide to skip over these years as the nitty gritty details weren’t necessary to the overall narrative? What was behind the decisions to skip several years in the program, at these particular points? I just now thought that this is also an interesting aspect to consider when thinking about how writers write for television, be it TV movies, miniseries or tv shows. What really goes on and drives the decisions that we ultimately see in the finished product?

Something I tend to enjoy looking out for with older films and television programs, are what the costumes, sets, and decorations look like. Well, I enjoy them up to a point. More likely than not, they look terrible. They each speak to the time of release and what was considered good. One thing I’m wondering about is how much of a budget did this series have? That could prove to be crucial information. None the less, the costumes, sets and decorations did what they needed to do. Rather quickly I was transported to the various locations and during the various time periods this story takes place. In a lot of ways I had to applaud the various creative people that brought this epic tale to life. I can see how people would be amazed at what was done. You can see just how big and grand everyone was going for, albeit maybe not “The 10th Kingdom” grand, but grand! This story certainly deserved to have a high level of detail and authenticity, which worked well, and kept me there, but sadly doesn’t hold up well. That’s really going to be the commonest theme today. A lot of the time I spent chuckling, rolling my eyes and groaning, or simply stifling a lot of laughter at how ridiculous many of the actors looked during any given scene. However, to show that I didn’t totally hate the look of the time, or just enjoy making fun of what was created, I can say I was amazed for a time or two. When first being introduced to the plantation that Kunta Kinte found himself sold to, I wasn’t expecting this huge piece of land. So much space and so many buildings! Something, during that time, that probably wasn’t out of the ordinary. But, because this is 1977, it just looked magnificent! Even the property that Kizzy would later call home was just as incredible! The builders and creators of these sets clearly worked long and hard to bring this to life.

The one thing I quickly noticed was that this miniseries is one big history lesson. Not just history on the subject, Haley’s family lineage, but on a lot of thing that are more a sad product of the time. This includes the practices, beliefs, and the cultures that many of Haley’s ancestors held and were put through, as well as their other friends they knew throughout the time they were kept as slaves.

While watching the first episode, which centered on Kunta Kinte’s time at his village and village life, I largely found it to be utterly fascinating, even though it sort of moved a bit slowly. Even before I reached the first hour, I was interested, but couldn’t get it out of my head that what I was witnessing bored me. I knew that I couldn’t stop watching, which is a good thing as I wanted to know what happens next and I still had several hours, but it definitely made for one tough time. From a learning perspective and cultural introduction, I definitely feel like I learned something, and it’ll stick with me. Now all I have to do is hope that’s it’s as close to accurate as the various creatives could get it. If not, that’ll certain change how I go about viewing this from now on.

Sadly, or more tragically, this trend of being bored didn’t really let up. I made a notation, which I hate that I wrote, that says:

“Honestly, this is only episode two and I’m not all that impressed. I’m rather bored. But, and this is going to change my outlook on the rest of the series, I have to keep in mind this is 39 years old. Not much can truly surprise me, and as this was network TV, it’s not like they had free reign to begin with.”

Which leads to the treatment we witness of Kunta Kinte and all the others, from the moment they’re put on those massive slave ships. It’s harsh. It’s probably pretty shocking to those that see it, even today, but never really been exposed to much of it before, and helps show me how this miniseries captured people’s attention. Without this representation of the treatment of slaves, which I don’t think went too far, even by the standards of 1970s, I don’t believe it would’ve been as effective. Certainly people wouldn’t have responded as they did.

With so much cruelty displayed throughout this miniseries, one would think there’d need to be some kind of preparation for it. Sure you may be largely aware of the way slaves were treated, thanks to history classes, college courses, maybe even independent reading you’ve undertaken, or even other films or TV programs, that doesn’t mean seeing it won’t be disturbing. Well, at least it should be. Early on, like with the whipping Kunta Kinte got for not going by his slave name of Toby and half his foot being cut off for trying to escape, it didn’t phase me. I just looked on as if it were normal. Just another day. However, that being said, I don’t feel that that feeling is because I find it acceptable or at all normal. No, I find that it’s because the content of this series, which is pretty tame when comparing it to other things about this time, can’t surprise me. I’m pretty numb to that which should be shocking to me in some way. I’ve also just learned so much over the years, and can more or less prepare myself to the point that I’m unfazed. Noting this, I’m not saying it’s necessarily the reason why brutal films about slavery, like “12 Years a Slave” should be made, certainly not solely, but in a way, it’s the slight upside. If the story is solid and worth being told, then the cruelty recreated will work naturally, and drive home the many points that are trying to be made in the film. So long as it’s not gratuitous, the film or TV program should be just fine. You really can’t tell a story like this, without getting graphic and honest.

And, like with many other aspects of this mini, it’s the time. So much about the ‘70s dictates what exactly I feel and how. If it comes off as fake, in any, way, shape or form or somehow doesn’t carry the impact that it should’ve, my reaction isn’t going to be what one would expect, including myself. No matter how often I try to think through why I don’t respond with awe, or fright, or some other emotion, with regards to older films or TV programs, I can only come back with one thing. It’s the time. The finished product is just too dated and can no longer hold the same emotional sway it once did. Even with “The Deer Hunter” I couldn’t feel much. Part of it, as I’ve more recently narrowed it down to, is how far removed from it I am. If you can’t find much of a way to connect, it may be harder to react as expected.

While a lot of emotional response was absent, particularly when I didn’t think there would be, all was not lost. I found myself really drawn in by a few characters, which is truly better than none. Kizzy, Chicken George, and Ol’ George each brought a very specific kind of emotional level, and character insight, that I feel had been largely missing from the first three episodes. I also found, that as the extended family began to overlap more and more, come in and out, and dramatic and emotional consequences started playing out, that I was somehow more invested in their lives. I no longer just watched to get to the inevitable conclusion at the end of the miniseries.

What can I say about Kizzy? I think she might be my favorite of all the characters. Her journey is what ultimately got me to the point of absolutely loving who she became. But what really got me, more than anything, was watching her being sold and taken away from her family. Somehow it just hit all the right notes, and I was incredibly moved and emotional. Granted, this was after she’d spent her young adult life being a bit naïve and foolish, especially as it pertains to her relationships with her oppressor’s daughter. So, seeing this as her eventual trajectory wasn’t too surprising. She really didn’t believe, at least it seemed, that the rules applied, that she was in no danger. And then, Noah broke, during his lashes.

So, while it’s absolutely tragic to witness, it greatly informs her character, and when we next see Kizzy, she’s older and wiser. She’s learned how to be strong and fight for herself and her family, but at the same time, make it seem that those that control her, have that control. One stand out moment for me, was when Kizzy discovers that her dad has died. The whole scene is quite moving, even though anger is the biggest emotion evident and felt a bit too. It got deep enough in me that I just wanted to see more of her and how she kept on being resilient and keeping hope alive. All the way to the end, Kizzy just amazed me at what she could do, including spitting in old Missy Anne’s drink as punishment for pretending she didn’t know anyone named Kizzy. That little act of defiance, maybe revenge, was perfect!

Ironically, Chicken George, the next character I happened to like a lot, followed a similar trajectory as, Kizzy. He too had this starts off as this naïve and annoying young adult, who has his duties required of him, but is kind of crossing the line on what his relationship is with his oppressor. It’s an interesting perspective and dynamic, but ultimately, it’s one that doesn’t prove beneficial. When he’s expected to win a cockfight, he’s so full of himself, that he can’t even imagine an outcome where he might lose, and when he does, it’s quite sad. Tragic even.

“Well, at least you free.” George says to his dead chicken after the cockfight. It’s a very sad moment, which is amazing considering how much I found him annoying at this point in his story, but I was deeply moved. Just that one sentence and moment, did it for me. I’m still trying to figure out why this is, and I think I’ve found that I feel he and Kizzy were just written better. There was more focus in some way. Later on, when George returns and learns of Kizzy’s death, which is also a sad moment, it just built on top of what we’d already gotten. Firstly, she was something. An incredible character. Second, he came back a much different person. Like, Kizzy, he’d clearly grown a lot. He’d worked hard and earned his freedom, but also learned how to stay alive and probably out of most trouble.

I started thinking about this, and as I’ve written about these two incredible characters, I think it makes sense. I feel that I started to feel something for the characters as the generations started to overlap and you saw more of the family unit. In this capacity there was also more room for character growth. Then, of course, you throw in better performance and you’ve got a winning combination. The performances bit, I truly believe is a contributing factor to my dislike of the first several hours of this series. No offense to Burton, whom if I recall correctly, was only in his first major acting role, but his work was not the greatest, at all. Point in fact, a lot of the performances, all through the program, were pretty bad. At least by the standards I look at today. I don’t think they’re completely terrible, but they’re more what was considered good at that time. I can understand and excuse it, but it doesn’t mean that it makes watching this any easier.

The last character that somehow made any impact on me, was Ol’ George. Now, the question is, what about him do I like? There’s obviously something, but what? He comes in this starving, poor white man, and even though he caused problems for Tom, he was still taken in by the family. His wife is with him, as it turns out he has one and is pregnant, so I think this had something to do with it. I find that it speaks volumes, mainly to this story, but also to many others. On this I’m not sure, so don’t quote me on it. But, as this was the Civil War, I’m sure many people, not just black slaves, were in some kind of upheaval. I find that there’s a kind of connection, almost an understanding of each of their current situations in life. Chicken George’s wife knew this, and couldn’t turn away George and Martha, even though they’re white, and she has no obligation. I feel that given what she and her family went through, she knew she had to start somewhere, to begin building bridges.

What really did it for me, with regards to George, was how his character grew, but never changed. His views were always in line with his friends, as he opposed slavery and I would say learned from them. After the war ended, I noted, “Love still seeing George and Martha having deep relationships with the family and the other former slaves. It’s so beautiful and emotional.” And it was. This moment, along with a lot of the later treatment he received, just an incredible impact. I’m glad this was in the miniseries as I do feel it provides a unique voice to this time period. Not simply to show that not all white people were horrible, but that there could be an understanding between them. A strong bond could be forged, and not broken or changed, no matter the treatment, and that there was hope for a better world.

However, even with all these amazing emotional moments, that yes, were sad, and told me that I’m not dead inside, there were some other issues to contend with.

“Do I care? Not really.” That’s what I wrote after Toby has his sexy time with whatshername. I honestly don’t know her name. It wasn’t because I wasn’t paying attention, I think, but because so much didn’t interest me and I couldn’t keep track of the people coming in and out of the plantation. It’s the equivalent of not knowing who any of the people are on “Game of Thrones”, save for a handful of players. Even as I was prepping this, I still couldn’t think of what her name was/is. And now having written that, I’m still not entirely sure who she is. I think I know, but I’d have to track the family history, or watch it again to be sure.

I also wrote:

“Fiddler dies. I pretty much missed it. It also did nothing for me as it didn’t move me at all. Why is that? There’s clearly a huge disconnect for me with some of the characters, the character interactions/relationships, and so far, the bulk of the story.”

In some ways, based on the time that I wrote this, I’m not surprised I had this feeling or reaction, whatever. This was coming at the end of episode three, so that’s roughly five hours into a roughly nine hour miniseries, and I was immensely disappointed by what I’d been given. I don’t want to say that I’d lost hope in it, but it wasn’t making me excited to continue. Fortunately, and unfortunately, I ended up having a pretty big gap between episode three and the rest of the series. This gap may have in fact been helpful as I was able to get pretty well settled into the rest of it. Mind you, this is where the more emotional aspects started to play out and I was able to connect a bit to the people who were going through these hardships.

Apparently, even with really old programs, you can’t escape the things that just come off as silly. Plot holes, historical inaccuracies, continuity issues, etc. I wasn’t really looking out for them which is normal for me, and always makes me wonder how other people can view something, and solely look for this things or notice them whilst they’re trying to enjoy the film or TV series before them. But when two things stood out to me and bugged me so much, I knew I couldn’t resist mentioning them here. Were they just oversights or blatantly done for dramatic purpose, which is a bit sad too as it was avoidable.

The historical inaccuracy that I’m speaking about is when the timeline jumps to 1841, and characters begin to reference a man by the name of Nat Turner. He’s a historical figure of significance, like we saw (heard of) in the miniseries, as he led a slave rebellion against his oppressors and many others. The only problem is, well, two, his rebellion occurred in 1831 and he died that same year. Kind of impossible for Turner to be terrorizing anyone when he’s been dead for a decade. This one puzzles me as it’s not so much dramatic license as blatantly altering the historical record to suit your own need. I think I’m just surprised by this, as I haven’t watched enough from long ago that’s done this before, and it saddens me that they couldn’t just use the known historical record. It eventually led me to looking up information on Turner, and all that he truly did, that now my viewpoint on him is skewed. My viewpoint is now so skewed, that I blame this miniseries for the fact that I’m questioning how excited I should get about the upcoming biographical film about Turner called “The Birth of a Nation”. How will it portray him, and how much of a bias will be so evident?

The second thing concerns the character of Kizzy. Kizzy says to her son, “I may not be much older than you.” I’m baffled by this statement. I am. He’s her kid. It’s been 18 years (a time jump), on top of the other time jump, she’s got to be about 38 now. However, you’d never know this on account of her kid looking like he’s thirtysomething and she wasn’t previously pregnant, at least that they showed or told. With this information, I’m confused how this statement works. I mean, unless people back then viewed an age gap of 18 years as not really that long, then maybe this works. But knowing what I also know about how people viewed age, marriage, and having children, I’m sticking with being baffled. Perhaps it’s an unfair judgement. Maybe the man portraying her son, George, just looks older, and not in the way that Kizzy does. Prosthetics and makeup were used to make Kizzy look older and older, as was Kunta Kinte and several other characters. I don’t bring this up solely because the statement is weird, but because looking at Vereen throughout the episode, and until his character starts aging, it was just a bit distracting. He, to my minds eye, is supposed to be somewhat young, but he doesn’t look it. Hard to ignore, especially as I can easily spot this type of detail.

While my goal wasn’t to talk about the remake of this classic, which I believe I managed to avoid doing, other than to say it’s sad and unnecessary, I’ve discovered that there’s some aspect of the new one I must talk about. I feel that while this original no doubt did something wonderful in 1977 and for many years after, it just doesn’t hold up now. It’s because of this, and the new miniseries having started airing tonight, that talking about what I hope to get from the new version is a perfect way to end.

If anything, the new one can deepen how we as an audience feel and learn about the subject matter. So much of this original miniseries had me emotionally detached, and even though I was moved a lot more with episodes four through six, I didn’t feel that it was as deep as it could be. It was almost a momentary thing, and then I’d moved on as the story progressed. The acting will be much better, as well as the sets and costumes, two things that greatly informed me on what to think whilst watching. Knowing that the overall production values will be better, has me at least optimistic on this front. I’m also, hopeful that I won’t feel as bored in parts, partly because the writers will have worked to make it much more engaging and the runtime will be shorter. I’m seldom on board for remakes, even a little bit, and the new one will always have me conflicted, but from purely an entertainment standpoint, I think it will deliver. I, and so many others, will be treated to so much, that it will absolutely be worth the almost nine hours spent watching. I guess that’s all I can really hope for as I’m not going to get much more than I did with this 39 year old classic.

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