Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 2

Chicken George for real (left) and as seen on TV (right)

Yesterday I gave you an earful about Alex Haley’s Roots, published in August, 1976. True, it was an instant bestseller, but that was chump change compared to the mania that happened the next January. When the Roots miniseries aired, it was crazy. It was Kunta this and Kizzy that, and no one could get enough of Chicken George.

In 2004, shortly after reading Haley’s book, I watched all of Roots for the first time since 1977. How has it aged? Well, it’s a TV movie that’s for sure: very overlit; too much headroom in most shots; and too much music. But those are facile issues.

The good news is that what had impact on me as a child still affected me (which I think is no small feat): Kunta Kinte getting whipped; Kizzy being taken from her parents; Chicken George jumping a fence; and a few others. (The slave auction scene is a highlight, and you can see it here.) But most of all, both in 1977 and in 2004, it was the cast that struck me.

Let’s put aside LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen and Leslie Uggams, who collectively carry the whole production. No, I’m talking about the rest of the cast, which seems to be virtually somebody from every TV show ever. 60s and 70s television perennials such as Ed “Lou Grant” Asner, John “Gordy” Amos, Sandy “Glass Eye” Duncan become major players in the drama. For me, it’s incredibly distracting. My attention was interrupted by:

        •Did I just hear John Walton say the N-word?

        •Oh shit! Talk show host Gary Collins just chopped off Kunta Kinte’s foot!

        •Sweet Jesus, look at Mike Brady’s sideburns. Carol’s not going to like those.

Naturally, this cast wouldn’t confuse a contemporary audience, but as far as the middle America of 1977 was concerned, this was a masterstroke. The bottom line is that viewers felt at ease because of these familiar faces. Producer David Wolper has always said the secret of the show was making it as accessible as possible to the viewing public, both black and white.

And that’s the difference between the book and the film: instant accessibility. In lieu of Haley’s sophisticated literary devices (such as the lack of English dialog for a few hundred pages), the miniseries goes to the other extreme: the viewer gets a sense of all sides, all emotions. Humanizing the white characters, beginning nine minutes into the first episode, certainly gives them more of an equal footing and makes the whole narrative more palatable to a large audience.

I said yesterday that in the book when a character leaves the narrative, they’re gone forever, mirroring the African-American experience of frequent and permanent separation from family members. The miniseries doesn’t have as many characters nor does it adhere to Haley’s device. For example, on TV, Kizzy does get closure with her father: later in her life she returns to the plantation; learns how her father died; crosses out the name “Toby” on his tombstone; and etches in “Kunta Kinte” with a rock. The average TV viewer wants—needs—closure, so the TV Kizzy gets it.

(It makes me wonder: what if HBO made Roots today? With their tendency to have smart scripts with sizeable budgets and to use mostly unknown actors, a new visual interpretation of the book might be incredibly powerful—and closer to the source material.)

So, the miniseries is more digestible than the book, and takes only a fraction of the time to watch. But let’s just say that still you don’t have 9-and-a-half hours to spare, especially to re-watch something that has O.J. Simpson running around dressed like this, yet you still want to get a sense of Alex Haley’s opus. Well, tune in tomorrow, and I’ll have an answer to your problems! (Because I’m sure you’re losing sleep over budgeting your Roots time.)

And if anyone has their own memories of watching Roots back in the blizzardy winter of ’77, let us know!

NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.


Filed under Books, Film

9 responses to “Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 2

  1. Kim Thorson

    I’m in for reading the book. And the HBO remake… Great posts, Stephen!

  2. I like the clip. Adama buys Geordi. Cool. I’m surprised how much is going on just in the picture with those guys examining the “merchandise” and the POV cutaways to the different types of people standing around during the auction. Very sophisticated film making for late 70’s TV.

    I saw roots when it was originally on. I remember talking about it in school. Most of the discussion was about how slavery was bad (in case you didn’t know) and how great it was for black actors to have good roles on TV. These two things seemed so obvious to me as a kid. I didn’t know why they needed to be discussed so much. For me it was interesting to learn about the kinds of things that happened during slave times but I didn’t see the mini-series as any kind of turning point for society.

    For some reason your post reminded me of when president Jimmy Carter interrupted the premiere of Battlestar Galactica with his stupid Middle East peace treaty thing. Now THAT effected my childhood. How on earth were we supposed to find out how the colonial warriors got away from the Ovions? My priorities as a kid…

    • “Adama buys Geordi.” Yep! The sci-fi TV take on Roots. That’s so much like the reactions I had.

      And, yeah, that clip is as sophisticated as the miniseries gets. I’m not denigrating it, but it’s not normally so purely visual in its storytelling. And we’re much more in Kunta Kinte’s head than anyone else’s (an idea that falls apart during the show thanks to all the time spent on fabricated subplots about the plantation owners, boat captains, etc). Even Kunta’s POV of the CU of the auctioneer’s mouth approaches the confusion that dominates the first third of the book.

      I think that miniseries made it a lot easier for teachers to discuss that part of American history.

  3. Tom Donahue

    I must admit I’ve never seen the miniseries. It was just a dusty artifact in my mind until last week when I interviewed Lynn Stalmaster for my doc. He talked about his search for Kunta Kinte and how he came across Levar Burton. Then yesterday, I interviewed Asner and asked him about it (He grumpily corrected my pronunciation of Levar – “It’s not LEE-vahr! It’s luh-VAR!”. Funny to go on your blog today and see you talking about it! I’m going to have to watch it now…

    • Wow, it IS a small world isn’t? (Add to that that I met worked with Eric (the other person to comment on this post) only once: on your shoot at the church! (Jesus, Tom, that was 21 years ago.)

      I think Lynn Stalmaster does some audio commentary for the DVD of Roots. I’m so glad he’s going to be in your doc.

      How was Ed Asner? I love him as an actor, but he sounds a little stuffy in interviews.

  4. Pingback: Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 3 « Peel Slowly

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  6. anth

    liked the series as a 13 year old but it made going to a public junior high a living hell that winter!

  7. Lisa Kelley

    Re-watching on BET this weekend…yes…I remember well watching it in January 1977….ninth grade… classmates were enthralled….during the Emmy’s that year the talk the next day in school was how Ben Vereen got a standing ovation….I don’t care if Haley made assumptions, like many amateur genealogists, it was still an inspirational tale. One that inspired me to genealogy. One lesson I learned….never assume….do not try to fit research in with family tales….there may be a grain of truth but only a grain…document everything.

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