When one cares more about pop culture than one should, there’s a tendency to over-inflate its purpose in history. There have been pieces of art that influenced major changes in thought and had an impact on the direction of a country or populace, but not all great pieces of art do this. However, ROOTS, the television series based on Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Story Of An American Family, is an example of a work that did become a major part of American history. Records show that nearly 85 percent of all Americans saw at least part of the eight-episode, 12-hour miniseries, which aired on ABC from January 23-30 in eight consecutive nights. It’s a piece of art that helped Americans come to terms with what slavery was really like.
Haley’s novel might have turned out to be mostly fictional (and even partly plagiarized), but the show itself is one of the most powerful projects ever to appear on American television. It follows the family of Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka warrior Haley claimed was his ancestor in Africa. Kunta, first played by LeVar Burton in the series’ incredible first two episodes, is captured and sold into slavery. He arrives in Annapolis, Maryland in 1767 and from then on, he is known as Toby and his family is no longer free. The series follows the family’s successes, failures and trials as they do their best to survive, until the Civil War finally breaks out.
The performances are uniformly excellent. While white performers like Edward Asner and Chuck Connors were well known to the millions watching it, Roots was a coming out party of sorts for an amazing collection of black talent. Burton’s performance as the young Kunta is phenomenal. Louis Gossett Jr.’s Fiddler, Leslie Uggams’ Kizzy, John Amos’ older Kunta/Toby and Ben Vereen’s Chicken George are all unforgettable performances. They all seem like characters we would genuinely find in our own family histories, which makes it so easy to connect with them.
Although Roots doesn’t turn 40 until next year, the series gained new attention because of the A&E/History Channel remake. Thankfully, this was cause enough for Warner Bros. Home Video to finally release it on Blu-ray. Even though this was a television show, it looks marvelous, likely because it was shot on film. This really looks like a show that could have been made yesterday, which makes you wonder why a remake had to be made at all.
Bonus features include old material produced for DVD editions, supplemented with two new features. Roots: The American Story Continues features Whoopi Goldberg, Blair Underwood, Rev. Al Sharpton and others talking about the show’s impact on American culture. Roots: The Cast Looks Back features new interviews with members of the cast, although there are some repeated stories from the older material. Other extras include Haley’s interview with David Frost and the Roots: One Year Later hour-long special. The three-disc package also includes a slim book with an episode guide, photos and some original print advertising. Yes, the series is presented in its original 1:33.1 aspect ratio.
ROOTS is something that every American should experience at least once. It takes 12 hours to watch, but it will feel like minutes as the emotional highs and lows of Kunta and his descendants wash over you. It will frustrate you, seeing that America was built on slavery, but will also help you earn a new appreciation for the human spirit and its undeniable desire to be free.