Roots is based on the popular epic novel by Alex Haley. Based on Haley’s real life search for his African ancestors, Roots begins with the story of a Mandinka warrior, Kunta Kinte, and traces his family history through the Middle Passage, the Civil War, and into modern day America. Very few works of art can legitimately claim to changing the way an entire culture looks at itself, but Roots could make that claim.
On to the tale of the tape…
Relevance: While there continue to be great novels made about slavery and its long lasting effects on African-Americans, no story before (or since) has put a ‘face’ to the history of blacks in America as Roots. African-Americans are, as a culture, the only group of Americans who didn’t immigrate here by choice; Roots goes into vicious detail to remind the audience over and over again the impact of this.
Legacy: From a show biz point of view, the cast including John Amos, Levar Burton, Louis Gossett. Jr, Leslie Uggams, Shelly Duncan, Robert Reed, Chuck Connors, Ed Asner, O.J. Simpson, and Ben Vereen were an absolute murderer’s row for the late 70s (and this doesn’t include the heavy hitters that came in for the sequel). From a larger cutural point of view, Roots encouraged many African-Americans to research their own genealogy. An entire industry was born out of the search by many to discover their own roots.
Craft: Immensely watchable, the miniseries was must see television before the term existed (more on that in a minute). For many years, Roots was a holiday staple on cable. With an ensemble cast of that size, it’s impressive that each arc of the story is memorable in his own right.
Crossover: Nominated for Golden Globes, and Emmys, the series finale was at the time the most watched hour of television ever (now I believe it’s third). It’s on the short list of pieces about black culture that completely penetrated the mainstream.
Apollo: Hoo boy…take your pick. Was it the one everybody instantly recognizes, Kunta Kinte being strung up and whipped until he accepts that his name is now Toby? Was it my personal favorite (within context of course), of Kunta being tied to a tree after getting caught trying to runaway and having half his foot chopped off to stop him from running? Was it Kunta’s daughter Kizzy being sold to another family as punishment for knowing how to read and write? Was it Kizzy being raped by her new master and giving birth to Chicken George? Was it Chicken George learning his master was also his daddy? Was it just the collective chill that ran down black and white audiences when they realized, “Wait, THAT’s what slavery was like?!?” Is it the subtle racism and self-hatred elements that still exist in black culture that can be traced back to slavery?
OK, I’m clearly close to starting a new rant, I’ll stop there. Thank you for taking the time to read the two lists I’ve put together; they’ve become one of the most popular staples of this blog. I’ll come back later this week for some after the fact reflections now that both countdowns have ended.