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!
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.