Roots (1977) – Miniseries Review

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I think it’s worth prefacing this review with a few things, so forgive me is I do ramble a little before getting things underway. Feel free to scroll a little further down to get to the review, I just wish to speak first of a few important factors that this brought to mind, as well as my journey to seeing such a piece.

Surprisingly, I hadn’t heard of this miniseries until quite recently. I have been researching black history in general for a little while, something that – as many of you will know – was really sparked when I revisited Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), and subsequently read Malcolm’s autobiography. Since then, I’ve seen numerous films on the matter, and have read a few books on it, too, though there is plenty more still that I want to get around.

My intention was certainly to read Roots before seeing this miniseries. I returned to college this Wednesday, it now being Saturday, and scoured the library for it, among other books on the Black Panthers political party, hoping to save myself quite a bit of money on copies of the books. To my surprise, I had no luck, and so surprised by the absence of these books so often referred to as essentials that I also looked for Malcolm X’s autobiography, a book that had outright changed my life entirely, as surely something of such power would be included in any educational place? Another no, however. I found nothing. And out of the corner of my eye, I did catch note of multiple books detailing the life and times of Winston Churchill, and the likes… not exactly people I’m too fond of.

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With these all being American stories, I didn’t ponder too much as to why they weren’t included. But later on, I got to thinking about it, especially when thinking again of the kind of effect that Malcolm’s story had had on me. I’m not black, nor am I American, and yet his story had reached me in such a way that I am still unable to even start to explain it months later. The area I do live in is exceedingly low class, with many of my friends of my age (I am currently 17, though I’ve been seeing this problem for years already) turning already to drugging and drinking their way through it just as a way to try to forget about their complete lack of a future… and I realised that in a way, we face a similar problem. Not slavery, of course, nor racial prejudice, but a prejudice based on where we come from and things that we have no control over whatsoever that has been instilled by generations of cyclical pain and hopelessness.

I’ll be honest, I still am weary about getting together any kind of hope for the future. Even at the point I am now, which is one of constant attempts at self improvement, I still feel in the back of my mind and the bottom of my heart that… what if all of these attempts are worthless? What if the success of people here simply isn’t meant to be? And with that comes all of the evil thoughts alongside it, the ones that remind you of where you come from, your past pains and your future ones, too.

Still constantly struggling with the anxiety that I know I have solely because of the past trauma that I have only experienced due to the trappings of a low class area such as this one, it is a daily painful reminder of how something generational can hold the future back, and paint a picture of the future as something to be feared rather than hoped for.

Around March this year, I’d say my interest in black history really started taking some shape. I had admittedly been interested in the subject for many years. I can’t recall where it really started, the earliest example I can think of is stumbling across Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight at the start of 2017 and relating to it more than I had ever really expected to, and from there I ventured into many of black cinema’s acclaimed classics. Of course, I quickly came across Spike Lee, and adored his work (I still do, he may just be my single favourite director as of right now), and John Singleton soon followed.

Around March of this year, though, my interest in music started to take shape, and one of the first albums I introduced myself to was Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, which I loved mainly for its showing of someone transformed entirely. The transformation was the kind that I needed to be reminded of as a possibility for myself, as at my time of discovering the album, I was reaching perhaps my darkest point – a point I don’t wish to dwell on anymore – and so, seeing Kendrick’s transformation from ecstatic newcomer to suicidal and hopeless and into this entirely new person with a focus on using their past pains as a way to educate others to avoid the same trappings, especially in a place like Compton where detrimental actions are sadly so cyclical, had a huge impact on me.

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The third track on the album, titled King Kunta, was my introduction to Roots. I didn’t take too much of a note of it at the time, but I kept it in the back of my mind until I heard the name Kunta Kinte mentioned in Boyz N The Hood, one time when I returned to it. At the time of hearing the name that second time, I was just about finishing Malcolm X’s Autobiography, which was written with the help of Alex Haley, and so when I looked up Kunta Kinte and found Haley had written the book he originated from, I was instantly interested.

As I explained, I had no luck finding a way to access the book. And I stumbled across a beaten up DVD on a shelf this week, for a good price. Funnily enough, I scanned past it initially, and only when looking back out of boredom did I see it sitting there and grab it as quickly as I could. The box was falling to pieces, literally, with only sellotape holding it together, but I wasn’t going to pass it up. And the night I bought it, I went home and watched one episode. Then another. And another. But sleep got the better of me, so I returned to it the next day, and finished off the last three episodes in one sitting.

And, my God, do I have a lot to say about Roots.

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I’ll firstly establish the fact that I don’t think this is a perfect series. I think it is a little too gentle to really fulfil what it could have, mainly. It’s just a little too polite, a little too clean, and understandably so. I think Haley’s idea, or at least the writers of the show’s idea, to make the show vaguely hopeful in parts as to not alienate an audience and also to continue to give hope to those who can relate somewhat to these kinds of circumstances, as, let’s face it, slavery isn’t gone and neither is racial prejudice’s part in causing slavery. It’s just less obvious now. Nonetheless, it is all a little clean for my liking, and I was at times turned away from really being changed by this as too many times it opts to include melodrama rather than to really bite down on what is featured in-between the lines. This isn’t to say that it is by any means a bad miniseries, or that it fails to do what it set out to do.

I found Sally Jane Black’s review very interesting, where she speaks about how racism, at its roots, is a bad thing for everyone involved, as we are all one species, and by holding back the potential of others, we are only harming the potential of our future as a species of beings. Towards the bottom of the review, she touches on how she found out from a family member that some of her ancestors in fact owned slaves, and describes how she was struck with such a painful, sickening shame. I can’t help but feel this shame, whether related to anyone involved with such an act or not. The point is that, we as a species caused slavery. A human being conceived the idea, and hundreds or thousands acted that idea out, never stopping to think about what they were doing, or at least, not thinking about it deeply enough to realise that it simply shouldn’t have occurred.

I also think it’s a point to mention that, according to what I have read, a fair amount of Roots isn’t exactly the ‘true story’ it is advertised as. Whilst this doesn’t bother me too much as, hell, the point really made by this is that racism has been carried down for hundreds of years, and racial oppression has been there the entire time with it, I just think it is worth knowing and worth making you all aware of. As I have already said, I haven’t yet read the book, but much of what does happen here connects a lot with what I have already read enough for the story to be plenty believable, even if the people in the story aren’t really Haley’s ancestors. There is a bigger point here than about Haley’s ancestral history.

I also find it fascinating that, considering that this miniseries won so many awards and had such a large viewership, why is it so rarely mentioned now? As I said, I hadn’t heard of it until quite recently, nor have I really seen it mentioned much by others. This is supposedly the biggest miniseries event broadcast on TV, so why has it been forgotten so much?

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Maybe it is because much of what really struck me about the miniseries personally was more held back in the content. Of course, the explicit whippings and racial slurs and the main point being how this kind of racial hatred is passed down so many different generations for so many years had an effect itself, but I was often more focused on the title, the titular ‘roots’ of these characters, and how they survived in America.

Of course, with Kunta Kinte coming from Africa, his culture was entirely different to that of Americans, and the film makes a clear point of this, with his struggle to be transformed into a typical slave at the hands of Fiddler. But even as he finally starts to pretend that he has forgotten all that made him African, as he pretends that he has forgotten his heritage and his traditions, his religion and his language – his culture! – he hangs onto it with all of his might in his privacy, and passes it on to his children. Evidently, these ideals have lasted until now, and continue to live in this series (and likely Haley’s story), but it is this desperately hanging onto your own roots that really got to me.

Who ever could have thought up the grimace-worthy idea that such a large group of people should be taken from their home, shipped across the world in the most disgusting conditions even imaginable, sold for money that they’d never touch or even see, and then Americanised all over. Completely transformed, stripped of all that made them who they were. Taken from their families, taken from their language, their religion (I did notice how, gradually, from Kinte’s desperate praying to Allah on the slave boats we fell to the later generations praying to Jesus, following the American Christian religion, and it made me feel quite sick), they lost their name, their future, their everything. And it’s not like they lost this all for good reason, no! It was lost so that the women could be raped, so that they would be forced to work themselves into early graves, so that they could blindly hope for a future that would never be, so that they could try with all of their remaining energy to escape and still fail, and have their feet torn off, their skin ripped to shreds for punishment for not doing what they had been brought there to do, by the very people who brought them there! Imagine buying a ‘product’ for a purpose it isn’t fit to do, then proceeding to destroy it for the sake of trying to ‘get it to work properly, as it should.’… it’s even more ridiculous when applied to a persons than an object. These people even had to BUY their own freedom. No, they weren’t paid for their generational lifetimes put into working for no fee! No, not even were they paid for single handedly upholding the plantations, they were only paid when they went above that, and even then, it was such a small sum, a slither, that they had to save for two entire decades just to afford a hope at buying THEIR OWN FREEDOM back!

As if that isn’t enough, the slaves were even stripped of their educational resources. They were banned from educating themselves as the slave owners KNEW FOR A FACT that the slaves would be so angered by what they would find out that they would have fought back, and so they were never allowed to read or to write. Another way to hold them back, even more than before. It remains the single most unfathomable event in human history, to me. Even more than the holocaust, though admittedly not by much. How can anyone, a single person, find this kind of thing suitable? And just knowing that it really did happen, like it or not, adds so much pain to just about every frame here.

Speaking of frames, too – there are a lot. This clocks in at around nine and a half hours, give or take, and almost all of it is simply agonising. Every sub-plot seems to lead to, or at the very least involve, some great agony that goes on to haunt the family shown from start to finish. It is seriously gruelling, and such a runtime brought to mind the lingering works of Lav Diaz, maybe the only director currently at the forefront of actively fighting politically for the oppressed with the films he is continuing to create.

This is exactly what needs to continue to happen with film. We need to continue to use it to really make things change for the better, to highlight the wrongs of our history, to educate, etc. We need to use such a powerful tool for good, and Roots is a stunning example of taking the tools that come with cinema, showcasing it to an audience and using it for ultimate good. To raise awareness of the great horrors of the past, in the hopes of thrusting another nail into the coffin with the body inside being the act of ever doing these things again.

Racism is still a huge issue, one of the biggest, and yet, the solution is simply instinctual.

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