Turn Back The Clock
Roots: 30th Anniversary Edition
Distributed By: Warner Home Video
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I was a kid, an amazing, ground-breaking miniseries hit the television airwaves. Based on a book by Alex Haley, Roots centered on the struggles of his own family from the 1750s until the end of the Civil War. I had caught glimpses of this series when it first aired in 1977, but wasn't really old enough yet to watch the whole thing. It wasn't until later, when it was re-televised on the ABC afternoon movie, that I got to see the whole miniseries and much later in life until I would read the book that it was based on. Many scenes stood out for me and I will always remember the poignancy of the miniseries, so when I saw the 30th Anniversary Edition of Roots on sale for a great price in a local store, I jumped on the opportunity to watch it again.
The miniseries begins in West Africa in the 1750s with the birth of future Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte, son of Omoro and Binta Kinte (Thalmus Rasulala and Cicely Tyson). At the age of fifteen, just when he has risen to the title of Mandinka warrior, Kunta (LeVar Burton) and many members of his tribe are taken by slavers and forced to travel in horrific conditions on a three month ship ride to America. Many perish on the ship, either from illness or in an uprising, but somehow, Kunta finds the strength to survive.
He finds himself the property of the Reynolds family, under the tutelage of an elderly slave with musical talents named Fiddler (Louis Gossett, Jr.). Given the name Toby, Kunta refuses to accept his life as another man's property and escapes. He is captured and whipped for his insolence. Years later, a much older Kunta (John Amos) has appeared to assimilate to slave life, but he still longs for his freedom. Another escape attempt leads to the loss of half of his right foot. Sold to another member of the Reynolds family and now lame, Kunta wants to give up on life, but the Reynolds family cook Belle (Madge Sinclair) and Fiddler won't let him.
Kunta begins a family with Belle, naming his daughter Kizzy and teaching her about her Mandinka heritage. The family has high hopes of staying together, but Kizzy's (Leslie Uggams) aid to slave who escapes and is recaptured (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) separates the family. Kizzy is sold to a planter and cock fighter named Tom Moore (Chuck Connors), who rapes her and becomes the father of her one and only child, George. As Kizzy's son grows to manhood, he shows great promise as a trainer and cock fighter and Chicken George (Ben Vereen), as he is now called, becomes the light of his master/father's eye.
But even Chicken George desires his freedom, despite all his master has given him. After all, he has been raised learning all about his Mandinka heritage and knows that freedom is a possible concept for a man like him. In an effort to raise enough money for his freedom, Chicken George moves to England to train cocks, with a promise of freedom upon his return. His wife and sons are sold to another plantation owner. Eldest son Tom (Georg Stanford Brown) is married with children and has become a well-sought after blacksmith, but he, too, longs for freedom.
With the Civil War in full-swing, that freedom may not be so unattainable, but once it is had, how long can it be held?
When I say Roots was a groundbreaking miniseries, you must remember that, at the time Roots was aired, what could be seen in this miniseries would be considered quite shocking. The creators of Roots made certain that the atrocities of slavery were brought to life in the most explicit way possible at the time. That meant, we saw the ways in which escapes were punished (whipping was nothing when compared to Kunta's hobbling); the various forms of abuse slaves were subject to such as starvation, rape and beatings; separation of families through sales of slaves and more. This miniseries showed the mentality of those who owned slaves and treated them as nothing more than property to be used, bought and sold as necessary. These are atrocities that had never really been addressed on television before.
Roots presented an all star cast of amazing actors, some just starting their career like LeVar Burton, and others well established like Olivia Cole, Louis Gossett, Jr., Ben Vereen, Vic Morrow, Ed Asner, John Amos, Robert Reed, Chuck Connors, Sandy Duncan, Georg Stanford Brown, Lloyd Bridges, Cicely Tyson, Scatman Crothers, George Hamilton, Roxie Roker, Richard Roundtree, Maya Angelou and more. Each and every actor performed their roles to the utmost, making us feel compassion for the downtrodden and outright hate for the abusive. Scenes that have always stood out for me are the hobbling of Kunta Kinte, the birth and naming of Kizzy, Chicken George's antics and the moment when Kizzy finally pays back her former master's daughter for her hateful actions.
Roots is an amazing miniseries that spans the Haley family history from Kunta Kinte's life as a young Mandinka boy, to his capture and sale as a slave, to the birth of his daughter, his grandson and his great-grandchildren. The story shows slavery in a very truthful light and, given the times in which this miniseries aired, it was a shocking aspect to many who had never seen slavery portrayed in this way previously. It is still just as poignant a story today as it was when I first saw it and I am surprised that it hasn't aired more often on television, to teach a new generation of people the errors of America's past in an effort to attain a brighter future.
One word of warning - do not purchase the 30th Anniversary Edition of Roots on DVD. The audio and video barely match up and I had to stop the video and play it again just to get them to catch up to one another often. Somehow I muscled through to the end, despite the issues with commentators magically appearing in the midst of the episode on the sixth DVD. I couldn't even watch the seventh DVD in the set which featured documentaries and reflections by the original cast. Instead, I would recommend getting an earlier or later version of the series or, perhaps watching the series via digital download instead. Roots is too important a lesson in history to miss!