Twenty-five years after it electrified the American public and made television history, the miniseries "Roots" remains one of the most powerful and important stories of America that has ever been told.
Released this week, the three-disc "Roots 25th Anniversary Edition" DVD (Warner Home Video, $59.98, not rated) allows a new generation to follow the torturous journey of a black family from slavery to freedom and enables those who watched the original ABC miniseries to re-experience a program that in all likelihood affected them deeply.
"Roots," based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alex Haley that traced his family back to West Africa, was the highest-rated TV broadcast of all time when its 12 hours were first presented over eight nights in January 1977. It was seen by an estimated 130 million viewers, or 85 percent of all homes with a TV. (Even today, it remains the third-highest-rated TV broadcast of all time.) The miniseries won nine Emmy Awards.
But "Roots," which Haley called a work of "faction" (a combination of fact and fiction), was more than Nielsen numbers — it became a cultural phenomenon, as interest in the miniseries seemed to grow each night. It offered, for the first time ever on TV or in the movies, a black perspective on life in Africa, the horrors of the slave trade, the cruelty of slavery and the betrayals of Reconstruction.
For many black Americans, "Roots" provided a true history of their people; for many non-blacks, "Roots" was an eye-opener, a shatterer of illusions. For Americans black and white, "Roots" spawned a new interest in family history and genealogical research.
It cannot be stressed enough how much the American view of slavery had long been shaped by the "moonlight and magnolias" vision of Southern life. That version of history posited the gentility of the white plantation South, the relatively good treatment it afforded black slaves and the consequent loyalty of the slaves to their masters; the nobility of the Confederate cause during the Civil War, and the tragedy of post-war Reconstruction.
The portrait of Southern slavery as a benign institution was for generations the accepted view among many mainstream historians on the subject, led by Ulrich Phillips of the University of Michigan, Tulane and Yale, a view which was translated and adapted for America's school textbooks.
This vision was also the view of some of the most popular and influential movies ever made, particularly D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) and David O. Selznick's "Gone With the Wind" (1939), both of which glorified the Old South and portrayed blacks as being contented before the Civil War, pro-South during the war and (especially in Griffith's film) sexual predators and the stooges of carpetbaggers during Reconstruction.
It was not until the aftermath of the Second World War and America's confrontation with the Nazis' racist ideology that reinterpretations of the nature of American slavery started to emerge that were more critical of the slaveholders and sympathetic to the plight of the slaves. And it was not until "Roots" that the entertainment industry produced such an all-out assault on slavery.
"Roots" starts in 1750 with the birth in Gambia of Kunta Kinte (indelibly portrayed as a young man by Levar Burton, who was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California with no professional acting experience when he was chosen for the role), his capture by slavers, his agonizing journey to America in chains aboard a slave ship, his sale to a plantation owner, his resistance to accepting his slave name of Toby and his attempts to escape.
Kunta's education in survival is taught by Fiddler (played by Emmy winner Louis Gossett Jr.), who acts subserviently to his masters as a means toward securing the best life possible under such conditions, yet who harbors the same dreams of freedom as does the young African.
Played by John Amos as an adult, Kunta/Toby's attempts to escape after he is captured and gets his foot chopped off to keep him from running again. He settles down and marries his plantation's cook (Madge Sinclair), with whom he has a daughter, Kizzy (Leslie Uggams).
Toby is determined that his descendents never forget that their ancestors were proud Africans, and he has Kizzy memorize certain African words and details of their family history, a tradition that she carries on with her son and on through the generations.
Kizzy is sold off as a teenager to another master, who rapes her, producing a son, George. Called Chicken George (Ben Vereen) because of his skill at cockfighting, George is lost by his master in a bet and disappears for over a decade before he returns to his family as a free man. He is forced to leave again before the Civil War, but returns after the war's end, as Southern whites reassert their economic and political domination of blacks, to lead his wife (Olivia Cole), sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren to freedom in Tennessee, where he has purchased land.
"Roots" remains as wrenchingly powerful as when I first saw it on television 25 years ago. Certain scenes cling forever in one's memory, and still pack a mighty emotional punch: the look in Levar Burton's eyes as he realizes that the slavers have cornered him; the abomination of life on the slave ship; the horror of seeing slaves whipped for asserting their desire for freedom; the splitting apart of slave families; the casual cruelty of even the kindest slaveholders; and the power of a people who endured so much suffering without losing their humanity.
The digitally remastered DVD set of "Roots" does not have many special features, but does include informative audio commentaries by many of the people involved in the making of the miniseries. These insights are offered by co-producer David Wolper, various directors of the different installments and members of the creative team, and cast members Burton, Amos, Uggams, Ed Asner, Georg Sanford Brown and others.
In one way or another, virtually every actor interviewed describes his or her involvement in "Roots" as a career highlight. "I felt every single moment of it," says Cicely Tyson, who has the small but important role of Kunta Kinte's mother in Africa.
Similarly, a documentary, "Remembering Roots," which features the reminiscences of cast members, finds a unanimous theme of pride in what they accomplished and a shared belief that the message of "Roots' remains timely.
Leslie Uggams describes how emotional it was to watch the miniseries after many years, and says, "It's still relevant. It's still a message that needs to be heard today."
The importance of "Roots" isn't in the specific details of author Alex Haley's family history, but in the essence of his story. Just as "Gone With the Wind," for all its famous attention to historical accuracy in costuming and set design, managed to get the story of slavery all wrong, "Roots," whether fact, fiction or a combination of the two, gets the story right.