A BLACK WOMAN in her early 20s wailed her confusion midway into "Roots: The Next Generations." "I don't know what I am watching. Is it history or faction or what?"
ABC courted the confusion by labeling the drama both "a novel for television" and "the true story" of Alex Haley's bloodlines. Truth to tell, "Roots 2" was soap opera, not epic history; more true-to-life drama than literal truth.
Even so, "Roots 2" scored in ways that were surprising, even revolutionary, for television.
First the good news:
The Ku Klux Klan was portrayed before a mass audience in its true purpose for the first time. The hooded nightriders were creatures of economics, rather than simple protectors of white womanhood. The Klan strikes when the economic picture is bleak, as it did during the Depression of the 1930s, when prosperous blacks and Jews again found themselves the objects of torches. Championing white female virginity was the Klan's shield, its method of legitimizing what was really the protection of revenue sources. Television introduced and implied this for the first time.
"Roots 2" did well, too, in portraying the way blacks relate to each other. Having suffered through the antics of J.J. in "Good Times" and George Jefferson in "The Jeffersons," a story in which blacks expressed emotion in human ways was invigorating. So cavalierly have blacks been portrayed that it was nigh-revolutionary to see the love between young Alex and his grandfather -- the old man playing checkers with him and explaining about life.
That millions of Americans stayed with this black odyssey despite NBC's and CBS' tough competition should, but probably won't, signal the networks that there is an audience for black drama -- and make work for black performers. Blacks are seen only in comedy roles on network series today, and the actors and actresses who flashed across the screen like shooting stars in shows like "Roots 2" probably will still cool their heels idly around Hollywood.
Important, too, was the portrayal of the alliance between Simon Haley and the sharecropper. Haley put his life on the line when he interceded during the shoot-out with the illiterate black farmer and the sheriff and his deputies. In today's alarming real-life scenario that sees the black poor pitted against the black middle class, "Roots 2" brought home that it was Simon Haley's masters degree from Cornell that made it possible for him to bring change. The middle class aren't necessarily skunks, the script was saying. Revolutionary thinkers from Jefferson to Mao to Marx to King were men who had books and opportunity, leisure to think and plan. At no point did the middle-class Haleys turn their backs on their poorer brothers.
It was a useful history lesson that black people have not just recently begun to work hard, achieving some goals in spite of a dire and dangerous climate. And society's limits on how far that success could be extended and passed from one generation to another struck a credible chord.
But there was bad news as well. Subtle messages reflected old taboos and underlined old biases.
It seemed impossible to see a black spill the blood of a white, for example. Take the case of Garnett, Will Palmer's friend, the "bad nigger" who talked back and pulled a gun on the men intimidating Tom Harvey when he attempted to vote. When the mob pursued him, one pondered first of all the stupidity of his running into an open field. But not to pull that vaunted gun and fight back? Incredible! Instead the audience saw him shot and burned, the smoke rising from his docile body.
The spirit of fightlessness carried over from "Roots 1" when the men of the village did not prepare to resist when they heard the toubob (whites) were within close range of their manhood training camp. Once ensconced on plantations, the slaves talked about the rebellious slave Nat Turner who killed white people and revolted, but the audience never saw him.
"Roots 2" seemed on the verge of breaking this taboo when the Klan leader got his comeuppance during the Knoxville riot. I thought I saw him killed. But an observant friend pointed out that the audience saw the knife at his neck, not the act of murderrestitution. A train whistle interrupted the actual deed. A bow to the campaign against explicit violence on television? Perhaps. But consider this: Alex Haley interviewed Malcolm X and George Lincoln Rockwell. Both were presented as extremists. In real life, both met bloody fates. The "Roots 2" audience witnessed Malcolm's death in writhing detail, but got no notion of the murder of the Nazi leader.
My more paranoid friends suggest it is because television doesn't want to give blacks the impression that they can draw white blood, that the subtle subconscious suggestion to blacks is to avoid confrontation.
But how do we answer the young woman? In a sense, her question begs the question. The tale of the Haley clan is a historical novel in its chronological sweep and historical references. But one should take this entertaining "historical" drama not as a basis for understanding life or history, but as a foundation upon which to build and to reflect. History would have shown us black soldiers lynched in their uniforms and children murdered as they sat in Sunday school; soap operas must leave room for romance.
The answer for my young friend is to make "Roots 2" the kinetic force that propels her... toward the nearest library.