RootscoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
1977, 587 min. (8 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be TV-14 for nudity, adult themes, and violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Snoop Dogg recently slammed Oscar-winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave and the 2016 remake of the iconic miniseries Roots because “they just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But, guess what? We taking the same abuse. Think about that part.”

The “they” the rapper is talking about—12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and Alex Haley, the author of Roots—just happen to be black, though, and they’re coming at it from a different, “lest we forget” angle. The four-episode remake of Roots has gotten all the attention, but for my money the original 1977 series is still the best. As the box of the 25th anniversary edition proclaimed, “200 years to unfold. 12 years of research to discover. 2 years to create. 8 nights to make television history.” And that’s not hype.

When the final installment of Roots aired in January 1977, some 130 million viewers—then, roughly half the entire population of the U.S.—gathered around their TV sets to watch. Even the Las Vegas gaming tables slowed when it aired. Adapted from Haley’s novel about his search to unearth information about his African ancestors, the groundbreaking mini-series remains the most-watched dramatic show in television history. Everyone everywhere seemed to be talking about it, and the series was such a phenomenon that People’s Choice Awards were presented to every individual cast member, while Haley received a special citation Pulitzer (of which only nine have ever been awarded). Roots was the first mini-series to be aired on consecutive nights rather than a single episode per week, and at a time when there were few black actors in serious prime-time offerings, it featured a virtual Who’s Who of African-American actors.

The show pulled down nine Emmys, including Best Limited Series, acting awards for Louis Gossett, Jr., Olivia Cole, and Edward Asner, and awards for editing, writing, and directing. It also won the Golden Globe that year for Best Drama Series and top honors in the same category at the Television Critics Circle Awards. Hard as it is to imagine, few Americans thought much about their ancestors prior to Roots, and the show sparked a national interest in genealogy that continues to this day. But the show also generated controversy–and not because of the National Geographic-style bare breasts in early episodes, or because of the frequent use of the inflammatory word “nigger” that television viewers weren’t accustomed to hearing.

It was the white-on-black enslaving, rape, and mutilation scenes that caused all the fuss, and the rerelease of Roots has already rekindled those same heated debates about race and what Haley called his “faction” (a blend of fact and fiction). When it first aired in 1977, ABC executives feared it might incite race riots or that southern stations might refuse to broadcast the show. But there was just one mild incident at a single school, and the series was broadcast not just on every ABC affiliate in America, but in every country that syndicated American shows—including South Africa. Despite the “faction,” the series remains as powerful now as it was then, which is why John Amos and other African American cast members think it should be shown in every school in America, ad infinitum.

Rootsscreen1The mini-series tells the story of four generations of a single family, beginning with the birth of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton, who produced the remake), son of Omoro (Thalmus Rasulala) and Binta (Cicely Tyson), on the West Coast of Africa near the river Gambia. Just as Haley’s search for his roots began with the words “Kunta Kinte” and “gambi balongo” that he heard from his aunts, and the story they told him about Kunta’s enslavement, Episode 1 chronicles Kunta’s capture while he was seeking a log suitable for making into a drum. Viewers follow Kunta’s odyssey across the Atlantic in the holds of a slave ship captained by a Christian first-time slaver (Edward Asner) and his sadistic and seasoned mate (Ralph Waite). If it’s strange seeing Asner and Waite in those roles now, it was even stranger when the series first aired and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Waltons were still on prime time TV. Roots was an amazing production that still holds up today, but it’s even more amazing if you consider that back then miniseries were like variety shows in that recognizable TV actors from other shows were often cast. And in this one you saw a bunch of familiar faces, both black and white.

Louis Gossett, Jr. really shines as slave-mentor Fiddler, as does Madge Sinclair as Kunta Kinte’s wife Bell, Ben Vereen as Kunta Kinte’s grandson Chicken George, and Olivia Cole as Mathilda, the slave who marries him. For 1977 viewers, part of the fun of watching the series was recognizing all the familiar faces in unfamiliar roles that, somehow, most of them manage to pull off. There’s Bonanza ‘s Lorne Greene as the Maryland planter who buys Kunta at auction, Rootsscreen2and Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch Hour was prime-time pop kitsch in 1977!) as his physician brother. Savvy Shaft (Richard Roundtree) played an Uncle Tom-ish cockfighter, and Combat! veteran Vic Morrow was the overseer determined to break the spirit of Kunta Kinte—played as an adult by John Amos (Good Times was still airing then). Gary Collins from The Wackiest Ship in the Army turned up as a bounty-grubbing slave-catcher, Chuck Connors (The Rifleman) strutted about as a dandy “cracker” who fought cocks for a living, Sandy Duncan (The Sandy Duncan Show ) was a spoiled Southern Belle, and Leslie Uggams (The Leslie Uggams Show ) was Kizzy, Kunta Kinte’s daughter. In 1977, Scatman Crothers played the garbage man on Chico and the Man, but he was also a cock trainer in Roots. Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family ) made an appearance as a plantation mistress, John Schuck (police show McMillan and Wife was airing at the time) was a not-so-law-abiding overseer, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs (Washington, on Welcome Back, Kotter, a 1977 favorite) played a runaway slave, and Different Strokes‘ Todd “Willis” Bridges was a slave child. Lloyd Bridges (Sea Hunt) surfaced as a confederate soldier, with Doug McClure (The Virginian) as his showdown-happy brother. Georg Sanford Brown (The Rookies ) played Kunta Kinte’s great grandson, and George Hamilton (Dynasty) was just another rich white with a penchant for fine living. Amazingly, they all rise to the occasion.

With executive producer David L. Wolper choreographing four directors and this passionate crew across a broad canvas of time that spans the colonial era, the Civil War, and postwar Ku Klux Klan reconstruction, it’s hard to pinpoint weak moments (though, as director Marvin Chomsky remarks, the scenes with all whites in them are the dullest). Nevertheless, it’s still a powerful series, yet one full of unexpected humor and warmth. And it looks so much richer on high-definition Blu-ray.

A week after Roots was telecast, ABC vaulted to the top of network ratings for the first time in its history. Roots was the first “television event,” and it still packs a punch. Yes, the theme of slavery and abuse can be depressing, but this is an uplifting show too, one that celebrates the indomitable human spirit and the drive to adapt and survive. Poet Maya Angelou has been as outspoken about matters of race as Snoop Dogg, and the fact that she was part of this cast speaks volumes. The 1977 miniseries isn’t as graphic in its depiction of sex and violence as 12 Years a Slave or the remake, but it’s just as powerful. Because of mature content, though, it’s only suitable for families with older teens.

Language: Mild expletives and nothing more
Sex: Bare breasts on African women in the first two episodes, and while nothing graphic is shown it’s clear when a slave has been raped
Violence: Nothing like 12 Years a Slave, but still plenty of whipping and punishments
Adult situations: The entire series is really adult in nature, but well worth watching if children are old enough to handle the material—and many of your children have already seen segments in their schools
Takeaway: The really good shows never lose their luster

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