Roots – ***1/2

Posted: January 17, 2013 in 1977, biopic, Drama, Historical, Political, Social Drama, TV series, USA, XXX1/2

I just finished watching 573 minutes of historical drama. Often called the best tv series ever made, Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants over the course of a century. Once Upon A Time: Slavery!

With Django Unchained being released, I figured it was time to finally start watching this tv series based on a novel by Alex Haley, who retraced the (dark) history of his ancestors. His research led to a small village in the Gambia, where a young adolescent was caught by slave traders and shipped to the Americas,where his new life started. That kid had a name: Kunta Kinte. And even though his masters gave him the ‘proper’ name Toby, he continued using his original African name. Born free and pushed into slavery, he was constantly trying to escape, making him a ‘wild’ one in much need of being tamed. This is the set up and the story of the first episodes, which are followed by the accounts of his descendants.

Not since The Wire have I been so absorbed by a tv series. Watching this show has kept me busy for two days now, looking up background information online and discussing the subject matter with others. I didn’t quite expect the series to have that effect. I’ve always been fascinated by this ‘black’ page in history and am pretty well-informed about slavery in general, so I figured Roots wouldn’t really teach me something that I didn’t know before. And it didn’t. However, it did make me reflect on several aspects that I hadn’t pondered on before. But aside of all that educational importance, it’s also incredibly praiseworthy how all of it is presented. It seems almost impossible to cover so much history in such a short amount of time, but the producers pulled it off! That alone caused me to spend hours reading about whoever was involved in the making of this tv series.

But however much I really loved this series, it wasn’t perfect. This series was made in the seventies, which is a long time ago for a television series. Somehow, you notice that the most when you see two people kiss each other (choke each other with the lips tight on each other). The set & costume designers didn’t have the money or multimedia resources to re-create the 18th & 19th century as meticulously perfect as the sixties are represented in Mad Men. Several characters age about 50 years and even though the make-up artists did a wonderful job to make them age well, they weren’t able to make them look younger. So when adult actors play teens, it looks silly, no matter how good the story is. There are great performances throughout, but some of the acting is really bad, which really bothered me a lot. Sandy Duncan for instance, who plays a spoiled white girl, is terrible. It’s the perfect example of how a stereotypical character gets even more stereotypical by being played by an unbelievable actor. It’s also really sad that the producers couldn’t find an adult Kunta Kinte  who was as believable as the young Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton). It kind of ruins his character. Oh, and the soundtrack is terrible too.

Plus, on a more controversial note: I kind of felt that all the white characters were depicted as one-dimensional wrong-doers. I understand that it’s a story told from a slave descendant perspective, but as I was really impressed by the variety shown amongst the slaves and the self-criticism resulting from that, I was disappointed in the lack of variety that was shown amongst the white slave owners. It started with the captain who had to bring the ‘slave cargo’ to the US. I initially thought it was interesting how they depicted him, trying to give an explanation on why a ‘good’ man like him was involved in a bad thing like the slave trade, but they fucked it up by making him a bad guy in that one scene in his cabin. They didn’t have to make him look like an angel amongst devils, but when the first white guy you kind of sympathize for turns bad at the beginning of the series and the second and third ‘nice’ white person as well, you kind of give up. So when the above mentioned Sandy Duncan appears on-screen, you already know she is not going to remain nice at all. Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s SO obvious that it doesn’t matter. On the other hand, because of this, there is a ‘thriller’ moment at the end when you get to meet Ol’ George Johnson as you will never be sure if he’s a ‘nice’ or an ‘evil’ white guy. It’s not as bad as going to watch comedian Paul Mooney pick on white people all night long and it doesn’t make you want to watch Birth Of A Nation to get another perspective, but I just would have liked to get to know a bit more about the slave owners.

Anyways. Kudos to Louis Gossett Jr (excellent throughout), Ben Vereen (as an adult), LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams (as an adult), Chuck Connors and Madge Sinclair! A to the writer Alex Haley, regardless of the fact that he stole some of the stories from another author.

You tube doesn’t have a trailer! Weird. If you want to see clips:

  1. […] to the original series (seen four years ago), this remake is much shorter. It has more action. The acting is better. The setting is more […]

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