Roots (2016), on History & A&E & Lifetime & LMN
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This is a remake of the 1977 miniseries of the same name, which I've always wanted to see, but so far I haven't gotten the chance. I wasn't sure if I wanted to watch the remake without having first seen the original, but I decided to do so, anyway. So if and when I do someday get to watch the original, it should be interesting to compare it to the newer version. Oh, I should also say both miniseries are based on a book by Alex Haley, who is a descendant of the main character, Kunta Kinte. I haven't read the book, and don't have any particular plans to do so, so I can't compare either miniseries to the source material. But I'm given to understand there are some differences between the book and both miniseries. In any event, it's all a fictionalized account of Haley's family history, with varying degrees of accuracy in each version, apparently. Anyway, every episode starts with a brief narration by Laurence Fishburne. (The internet informs me he's supposed to be playing Alex Haley, but so far I have no reason to think of him as just a narrator.)
Part 1 (recap on Mother Jones)
In 1750, Kunta Kinte is born in Juffure, a village in the west African country The Gambia. There's an iconic scene in which Kunta's father, Omoro, holds the baby up to look at the sky and says "Behold, Kunta Kinte, the only thing that is greater than you." (Which, because I'm too young to have seen the original, basically just reminds me of The Lion King and Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars.) Then the story flashes forward, and as far as I saw, no year was given, but Kunta appears to be a young man. Later in the episode, the year 1767 will be mentioned, at which point Kunta would be 17. Anyway, even before Kunta was born, we saw that the Kintes were opposed to a rival clan, the Koros, who were selling slaves to the English without the permission of their king, mostly to obtain guns. (It's important to note that, although Africans themselves had been involved in owning and selling slaves even before Europeans showed up, the African idea of slavery wasn't a permanent thing; I gather it was more like indentured servitude. And presumably, African slave owners treated their slaves a lot less harshly than European slave owners.) Anyway, now that Kunta is a teenager, that rivalry is stronger than ever. Meanwhile, Kunta is in love with a girl named Jinna, who was supposed to marry some other guy. And I guess the other guy was a Koro. Meanwhile, Kunta and a bunch of other boys around his age are taken away for a rite of passage to become adults, and warriors of the Mandinka people. This is cut short when Kunta discovers a dead body in a boat, apparently killed by the Koros. So everyone goes back to Juffure, and... I dunno. Um, Kunta learns that Jinna had decided not to marry that other guy. So he has hope that they can be together. But also he has an argument with his father, as he wants to go to Timbuktu to study at the university, but his parents want him to stay in Juffure. I'm not sure whether Kunta had made up his mind on that point, before he's kidnapped by Koros (who also kidnap Jinna). I guess they sell both of them to English slave traders, though we don't see Jinna again after she's caught.
Conditions on the slave ship that's transporting Kunta and other slaves to America are pretty horrific. Kunta eventually leads an attempt to take over the ship. It was kind of neat how they made plans by singing in their native language, so the English wouldn't know what they were up to. But while they manage to do some damage and kill some people, the mutiny ultimately fails. She ship arrives in Maryland in June 1767 (87 days after Kunta was captured). He's then sold to a Virginian tobacco farmer named John Waller, whose wife Elizabeth gives Kunta the new name "Toby." And there's a house slave called Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) who is tasked with teaching him how he's supposed to behave. Of course, Kunta never accepts the idea that he will be a slave the rest of his life, and doesn't always do what he's told, for which Fiddler is blamed. But the two slaves eventually bond, largely because Kunta sings a song his mother, Binta, used to sing to him, which Fiddler remembers his grandmother singing. (Unlike Kunta, Fiddler- whose real name is Henry- was born into slavery.) Anyway, months pass, and on Christmas Eve, Fiddler makes a plan for Kunta to escape. But he's recaptured by the plantation's oversee, Connelly (Tony Curran). The next day, Kunta is tied to a post, to be whipped by Connelly. He's given a chance to avoid the whipping if he'll just say that his name is Toby, but he refuses. So, while the other slaves and the Wallers all watch, Connelly whips him pretty savagely for a long time. Kunta keeps saying he is Kunta Kinte... until finally, when he is barely able to speak, he says "Toby." Meanwhile, Fiddler is given to John's brother, Dr. William Waller, to whom John apparently owes a lot of money.
Part 2 (recap on Mother Jones)
This episode's opening narration says that Kunta spent the next ten years waiting for an opportunity to escape again, and when it arose, he took it. That's in 1782, which by my math is fifteen years, not ten. Anyway, when he escapes, he kills Connelly. Immediately after that, English army troops show up, and Kunta promises to fight for their king in the ongoing American Revolution. He joins some other escaped slaves (and at least one Native American) who have joined the British army for similar reasons. (He tells one of them that he hasn't seen his family in nearly ten years, and again I gotta say it's been fifteen.) Anyway, Kunta and the others in his group basically get used for cannon fodder, so during one battle, he runs away. Or actually acquires a boat and paddles away. But it's not long before he's captured by bounty hunters, one of whom chops off his toes on one foot. He wakes up sometime later, after fever dreams, to find he's been taken care of by a slave named Belle, and Fiddler is also there. John Waller had given Kunta to William, as partial payment for what he owed. At first, Kunta would rather die than learn how to walk. But eventually he tries, and after a few stumbles, he succeeds. Then he has to go back to work as a field slave, but after awhile, Belle convinces William to make Kunta his new driver, as the old one had run away, and Kunta is good with horses. Also, there's an overseer named Spalding who particularly hates Kunta; partly I think that's because he suspects him of having killed Connelly.
A year later, in 1783, the (white) Americans win the war and celebrate their freedom from England. The irony of this is certainly not lost on any of the slaves. And various things happen that year. A field slave gives birth to a boy named Noah, though the slave dies (because Spalding had forced her to work while pregnant, against William's orders). Also, Elizabeth Waller has a daughter named Missy, who might be the product of an affair with William. And Kunta marries Belle, at which point he's introduced to the concept of jumping the broom, which the other slaves (who had been born in America) believed was an African wedding tradition, though Kunta tells them it's not. Anyway, they later have a daughter named Kizzy. Kunta does the same lifting-to-the-sky thing with her that Omoro had done with him. And someone kills Fiddler, who sacrifices himself to protect Kunta and baby Kizzy. Six years later, in 1789, we see a few scenes in which young Kizzy and Missy are friends. Missy secretly teaches Kizzy to read, even though it's against the law for slaves to read. Then the story flashes forward to 1798, when Kizzy is fifteen. William wants to breed her with Noah, but... Kunta tries to prevent that, partly by lying to William and partly by threatening Noah. But later on, Kizzy decides to teach Noah to read. I guess Kunta didn't know she could read, and it scares him, because of what could happen to her if anyone else found out. Still, he had been teaching his daughter to ride a horse and become a warrior. And she tells him reading is her way of being a warrior.
One night there's a hurricane, during which Kizzy encourages Noah to run away. After the storm, he's found and killed. As if that weren't bad enough, William finds out Kizzy had forged some paper for him, so she's sold away. (And somehow, Missy feels like Kizzy had betrayed her.) As she's taken away, Kunta... does something reminiscent of the last time we saw his father. I don't exactly understand it, but it seems to be a custom that involves picking up a handful of dirt as a sign that a loved one who has left will return someday. (As callbacks go, it's a nice touch, but I don't think it bodes well, considering.) Anyway, Kizzy's new owner is a relatively unsuccessful farmer in North Carolina named Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who rapes her. The story then flashes forward to her giving birth to a boy, whom Tom names George. After that, I got the impression Kizzy was going to kill herself and her baby, but instead she does the lifting-to-the-sky thing. (Seriously, that is an incredibly important symbol of the chain of generations.)
Part 3 (recap on Mother Jones)
This episode begins in 1816, which it says is "10 years later." Which I guess means part 2 ended in 1806, though the last year I ever saw specified was 1798. In any event, George is now 10 years old, and Tom makes him start assisting a cantankerous older slave named Mingo, who takes care of Tom's chickens, though Mingo doesn't like George (or much of anyone). Tom uses his roosters for cockfighting, hoping to earn enough money to establish himself as a gentleman. (He's quite bitter about others in the area looking down on him because he comes from poverty, and because he's Irish.) George likes working with the chickens, and he believes Tom likes him (though he doesn't know Tom is his father). But Kizzy (now played by Anika Noni Rose) doesn't want him getting too close to Tom. The story then flashes forward 12 years, to 1828. George is romantically interested in a slave named Matilda. However, George (using showmanship that will later serve him in various ways in the coming decades) makes fun of Matilda's father, a Christian preacher named Benjamin Lyon. (Earlier in the miniseries, we had seen that Kunta Kinte's family in Africa were Muslims, though not a whole lot was made of that. I gather his descendants in America were, as well, but the most the miniseries makes of that is when Kizzy disapproves of Matilda and her father. But even then, it doesn't keep George and Matilda apart. But Kizzy does make an interesting point about black preachers not being allowed to preach about the Book of Exodus.) Meanwhile, George secretly trains one of Tom's gamecocks, without Mingo's knowledge. And the first person George comes up against in a cockfight is a man named Marcellus, who had bought his freedom three years ago. He makes George realize he deserves a cut of his master's winnings, so that he might someday buy his own freedom. George's bird wins the fight, and I think it's at this point that people start calling him "Chicken George." And I guess Tom buys Matilda so she and George can be together. And Kizzy starts a relationship with Marcellus. (But not before making the point that she doesn't want to have a man act like a second master to her, which I think is an interesting callback to a scene from part two, when Kizzy and Missy were young.) Later, Tom is invited by one gentleman to attend an Easter gathering at his estate, and while there, Tom is offended by a gentleman named Byrd, which leads to a duel between them (first with pistols, then swords). Tom barely survives, only managing to win with George's encouragement. He promises that when George has made him enough money, he'll give him his freedom (but not til he'd paid him back for buying Matilda). Meanwhile, Tom (who has continued raping Kizzy all these years, though I don't think he sees it that way) becomes jealous of Marcellus's relationship with Kizzy. I get the impression Tom believed that what he felt for her was love, and was hurt (and then angry) that she didn't love him back. Of course, Tom's idea of his own "relationship" with Kizzy was absolutely ludicrous. Anyway, it ends with Marcellus having to leave, though he hopes to see Kizzy again, if she ever gains her freedom.
The story jumps forward to 1831. Tom, George, and Mingo travel to Virginia for a cockfight. While there, they learn of Nat Turner's slave rebellion, which leads to Tom distrusting his own slaves. They return home in a hurry, as Tom is worried about his wife, Patricia, being all alone in such dangerous times. (We actually see very little of Patricia in the miniseries, which is why I didn't mention her before. I do think she's aware of what Tom's been doing with Kizzy, and isn't happy about it. And I think in his own way, Tom loves Patricia, but as I noted before, I don't think much of his idea of "love.") When they get back to Tom's farm, they find that a white mob had burned down as much as they could, looking for slaves who might be involved with the rebellion. But Kizzy and Matilda had escaped to hide in the woods, along with George and Matilda's children. Meanwhile, Mingo dies of injuries from a beating he'd received earlier, from one of the people who told them about Nat Turner. All this makes George want to kill Tom (whom he admits to his mother that he knows is father). She convinces him not to kill Tom, so that George wouldn't be killed for the murder of his master. Not long thereafter, Matilda has a fifth child. (They already have two boys and two girls, though I don't recall the births of any of them being important to the plot in any way.) Three years ago, George had promised Tom that he would name his first child Tom, but so far he hadn't done so. I guess now he has no choice but to name his fifth child Tom, but apparently it's the first time he does the naming ceremony that we'd seen with previous generations. Then we jump to 1835. Tom and George go to Charleston, South Carolina, for what apparently is the most important cockfight they've ever competed in. Tom bets more than he can afford to lose, but promises if George wins, he'll be free. He does win, but then Sir Eric Russell asks Tom for a rematch, and that one George loses. Which means Tom would be penniless, but instead he accepts an offer from Sir Eric to forgive the debt if he gives George to him. George is furious to lose his freedom so soon after he thought he'd gained it, but there's nothing he can do. Sir Eric takes him back to England with him, thus separating George from his family. But Tom promises when George returns, he'd set all of them free.
Part 4 (recap on Mother Jones)
I think the text on screen at the start of the episode said it was 1845, which would bet ten years after part 3 ended. (The text giving years and locations seemed a lot smaller and harder to read in this installment than it was in the previous ones.) But a bit later, the narrator says George had been in England 20 years before Sir Eric freed him. (He also mentions George's seven children, whereas the last I heard, he only had five.) It seemed a bit odd to me that this episode only spent a minute or two in England... and odder still that when George gets back to Tom Lea's farm, the text said it was 1860 (25 years after he was taken to England, not 20), at which point the American Civil War is underway. George learns from an old slave woman that his mother had died while he was gone. And he learns from Tom (now an old man) that he had sold George's family to a farmer named Benjamin Murray, despite his earlier promise. (And incidentally, Patricia had left Tom.) George goes to the Murray farm, and after an initial hostile reaction from Benjamin's son, Frederick, he's reunited with Matilda and some of his children (who are now all grown up). His son Tom is away, as Murray often rents him out as a blacksmith. (Tom's saving up money to buy his family's freedom.) And three of George's children had been sold some time ago. George stays on the farm with his family, but when Tom comes home, it's clear that he resents his father's long absence, and wants nothing to do with him, now. Anyway, after a couple of months, George has to leave (otherwise I guess the Murrays could claim him as their slave, or something). Benjamin seems a nice enough sort (as slave owners go), who probably wouldn't have done that, but Frederick is pretty terrible. He's also engaged to a woman named Nancy Holt (Anna Paquin), who seems to hold the same views on slavery and secession as Frederick. However, she later confides in Tom that she's actually a spy for the North. She convinces Tom to help a fellow spy named Jerusalem (Mekhi Phifer)- whose real name is Charles- on a mission, but Charles ends up being caught and killed by Frederick. He also knows Nancy was involved, and when she refuses to tell him who else was involved, Frederick hangs her, too (against Benjamin's protests).
Meanwhile, George and an escaped slave named Cyrus join the Union army. The story then flashes forward to 1864, at the Battle of Fort Pillow, which the Union troops lose. The Confederate troops kill all of the black troops that had surrendered, but George and Cyrus manage to escape. However, Cyrus loses an arm. Then we flash forward to 1865. The war is over and the slaves are all free, though life doesn't really change much for them. Soon, Cyrus shows up and tells George's family that George had joined a reverend named Garland, who was organizing black former soldiers to fight Southern bushwhackers who refused to accept the outcome of the war. Tom then goes looking for his father, finds him, and brings him home. The entire clan decides to leave the farm, and Benjamin Murray wishes them well, though Frederick tries to stop them. And... the satellite garbled the picture and sound, so I wasn't sure exactly how that turned out, except that when the picture returned, George was holding a gun- which I guess he had taken from his father at the start of the episode. (So I assumed he had probably shot Frederick, which was confirmed for me when I later read the Mother Jones recap.)
Before I finish talking about the story, I have stuff I want to complain about. That garbled scene wasn't the only technical problem I had, watching the miniseries. I tried to watch part 1 when it first aired, but because of satellite trouble, I had to give up and watch the rerun the next day. I decided to do that for the other three installments, but only managed to do so with parts 2 and 3. And part 4 sat on my DVR for a bit over a week before I managed to watch it, but when I did, I found that it had been cut into two parts. It was shortly after the garbled scene near the end of the episode that the first recording ended. I'm not sure how much I might have missed between the two recordings, but probably not much. But while I'm complaining about technical issues, I also need to say there were several scenes throughout the miniseries where I couldn't really see anything because the screen was just too dark, whether the scenes were set at night or just within buildings that had little or no light. (There were some dark scenes where I could more or less gather what was going on from the audio, and some where I had no idea what was going on.) Though I have no idea how much that's the fault of my TV not being very good, and how much it was because of the way the miniseries was filmed. Probably it was mostly the former. Anyway, in the second recording of part 4, Tom's wife, Irene, has a baby daughter, and Tom says some stuff, but I don't think he said the same thing the previous generations had said. And if anyone said the new baby's name, I didn't hear it. Then we finally see Laurence Fishburne as Alex Haley, at his typewriter. He then walks off into a field and sees, like, the spirits of people from the novel he'd just finished writing, while we continue to hear his narration. (He doesn't actually speak.) And... the recording cut out before the very end, but I couldn't have missed much. Bloody annoying, though.
Technical problems aside, it was a pretty great miniseries. It's an important and well-told story, with good characters and acting all around. And it's amazing how a story that spans over a hundred years and four (or five) generations manages to show so much continuity, in both big and small ways. And... it's deeply disheartening to realize how relevant the story remains, how much progress there is left to achieve, before society has true equality. But I believe we'll get there someday. (And even when we do, stories like this will still need to be told, so we never forget.)