History is airing a four-night remake of "Roots" starting Memorial Day. So far, reviews for the remake — including one by Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever — have been generally favorable. But there is no denying the enduring cultural significance of the original.
We've pulled together some of The Post's coverage of the original "Roots," including Sander Vanocur's review, which predicted that it would be a ratings success and would lead to a sequel (in fact, it led to several), and William Greider's analysis on why white Americans watched the miniseries. Those articles are below, followed by an editorial that pondered the "monumental impact of 'Roots.' "
In addition, on Feb. 14, an A-section feature called Post Script included this quote from Ronald Reagan (sourced from unknown origin):
The millions of admirers of the TV presentation of 'Roots' didn't include Ronald Reagan, who said, 'Very frankly, I thought the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive.' He added that he was impressed by the huge audience the series attained, but 'I didn't know there was anyone who could stay home eight nights in a row.'
From page E1 on Jan. 23, 1977:
By Sander Vanocur
There is little sense in trying to compare ABC's extraordinary dramatization of Alex Haley's "Roots" to serials like "Rich Man, Poor Man," or to such continuing narratives as "The Forsyte Sage" or "Upstairs, Downstairs."
It is true that "Roots" is not the first serial to deal with the subject of a family and its evolution over an extended period of time. The distinction is that "Roots" deals with a family and its evolution in the context of slavery. That distinction is of major importance, since the introduction of slavery into this country is the continuing central issue of our national existence.
ABC's eight-part, 12-hour presentation of Haley's "Roots: The Saga of an American Family" begins tonight on Channel 7 with a two-hour episode at 9 o'clock. The series concludes next Sunday. Its effect will be heightened by the decision of ABC's Fred Silverman to show the episodes on consecutive nights rather than using the now-conventional approach of one segment a week for eight weeks.
But what makes "Roots" so compellingly unique is that television is finally dealing with the institution of slavery and its effect on succeeding generations of one family in a dramatic form.
That effort has been almost absent from our television screens. I asked several people if they could recall a fairly recent example of slavery examined in a dramatic — as against a documentary — form. The only program recalled was "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman."
All of us watch television with what Walter Lippmann called in "Public Opinion" — published 25 years before the advent of television — "the pictures in our heads." He meant by that the stereotypes that we have of people and places.
We watch detective shows on television with stereotypes of cops and killers, pictures in our heads that we have formed from other television shows, movies or books. We watch science fiction on television with different stereotypes assembled from moon landings, Star Trek and, if you are old enough, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
But we bring to our television screens, for the most part, pictures in our heads about slavery that have been formed by history books, novels and movies. The evening news programs, especially in the '60s, brought us pictures of the consequences of slavery, but not of the institution itself.
This involves one, especially in the opening episode of "Roots," when we are transported in dramatic time back to Gambia, West Africa, from 1750 to 1767, in a greater than usual effort of what Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief."
There has already been criticism voiced that the language of the young hero, Kunta Kinte, and members of his tribe, is formal and stilted; that it and the almost lyrical depiction of that culture is false and maudlin.
That does this drama a great disservice. We come to the television screen tonight not as cultural anthropologists but as viewers. Most of us have not read the book, which already has sold more than 500,000 copies. We are not seeking historical exactitude, but what this television adaptation provides: a dramatic sense of what the institution of slavery did to one family that endured and survived it.
All of us — blacks and whites — will bring to this drama different perceptions of what the institution of slavery and its consequences have meant to us as a nation.
But what makes this television experience so compelling, so different from anything we have yet seen on television, is the attempt that has been made to achieve a harmonious unity of those perceptions as we become absorbed in the destiny of the individuals that the institution of slavery so traduced. We are watching more than a drama.We are witnessing an experience.
The opening episode begins with the life of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) in his village, his initiation into the rites of manhood, his capture by slave traders and the slave ship that takes him and 139 others to the American colonies. The ship is commanded by a conscience-stricken captain (Ed Asner).
There may be some complaints about the realism of the scenes aboard the slave ship. They are very realistic and they are very grim. But one cannot accuse the people responsible for this television adaptation — David Wolper Productions — of reaching for the sensational. The slave ships were hell holes, and the scenes succeed in approximating that horror.
Tonight's episode ends with Kunta Kinte aboard the slave ship, bound for Annapolis, in 1767. The story resumes Monday night with an unsuccessful attempt by the slaves to take over the ship. It is followed by the landing in Annapolis and Kunta Kinte being sold to a planter from Spotsylvania County, Va., William Reynolds (Lorne Greene).
He is given the name of Toby by Reynolds and entrusted to the supervision of another slave, Fiddler (Lou Gossett), with instructions to make him a good field hand within six months.
Rebellious and defiant, Kunta Kinte is introduced into the slave life of the South. He tries to escape but is tracked down by hounds and returned to the farm where overseer Ames (Vic Morrow) orders another slave to beat Kunte Kinte until he is willing to say to the other slaves, assembled for the whipping, that his name is no longer Kunta Kinte, that it is Toby.
The second episode ends that way, with Kunta Kinte lying in Fiddler's arms: the young newly arrived African slave, beaten into submission, being wept over by the old American slave, who long ago made his separate peace with the institution of slavery.
Tuesday's episode will find Kunta Kinte/Toby (John Amos) as a grown man in the year 1776, and still rebellious. But his final attempt to escape costs him his right foot. He is nursed back to health by Bell (Madge Sinclair).
In subsequent segments Kunta Kinte/Toby marries Bell and passes up his last chance to escape when the couple have a baby whom they name Kizzy; Kizzy grows up, and as punishment for helping a young slave run away, is sold to a new owner (Chuck Connors), who rapes her; the focus then turns to the child born of that rape, Chicken George (Ben Vereen). Chicken George — his name comes from his skill in training fighting cocks — is sent off to England to pay off a debt his master has incurred, and with the promise that he will return a free man.
Chicken George returns from England in 1859 and is reunited with his family on the eve of the Civil War. By the concluding episode, Chicken George and his family are being threatened by nightriders and carpet-baggers. He decides to move the family from Virginia to Henning, Tenn.
That is not the way Haley's book ended. He went on to describe three succeeding generations. But producer David Wolper decided to end the series at this point with the possibility that if it is a success, the rest of the family history will be dealt with in a sequel.
My guess is that the coming week's episodes will amount to both a great artistic and a ratings success — and that the sequel will be made.
From page B1 on Feb. 3, 1977:
By William Greider
Something awesome did happen in America last week and we all know it was not a snowstorm.
Without quite defining it, we know intuitively that this television series called "Roots" was a shared crossing over deep water, a stunning passage in the mass culture of America.
To grasp this, merely consider 30 million American families, nearly half of our population, gathering in their living rooms for eight evenings, children and parents, to watch an eight-part melodrama on our greatest national disgrace. Black people groaning in the hold of the white man's slave ship. This TV set in your living room is a powerful preacher.
Or try to imagine the reasons why this gruesome story, so long suppressed or excluded from our orthodox history, should now enthrall us. What makes the ugly truth so compelling to America's popular audience at this point?
Whatever speculative explanations you may come you with, the fundamental message is the same: Our shared memory has been abruptly altered, broadened to incorporate long-denied realities.
Beyond this blunt acknowledgement, it will take a long time (and probably many arguments, from many different viewpoints) to define the message of "Roots" and its impact on ourselves. In obvious ways, it was a very crude history lesson and critics will enumerate the benign falsehoods and wholesale simplifications. As a sequence of eight dramas, it was better than most TV but still clumsy and blatant, in the manner of TV melodrama.
Low history, bad art. These complaints are still only footnotes, I think, which do not really reduce the social phenomenon of "Roots." It has glorious implications for the future of the nation, an obvious suggestion that the self-enriching process that built the American culture out of many remains alive and inventive. "Roots" is a little frightening, too, as a dramatic example of how our mass mythologies can be defined or altered so effectively, so swiftly by a small number of citizens, the people who control television broadcasting.
The social implications become clearer and more impressive, if one assumes the worst about those TV people, if we assign the most cynical motives to their endeavor. Assume ABC did not yearning to promote racial justice, but from a deep yearning to sell soap and hamburgers to the largest possible audience. Assume also that these TV people know what they're doing, if not as artists or historians, as packagers of massive audiences, as manipulators of images that draw people to their TV sets.
In that sense, the profound social message of the "Roots" phenomenon is contained in this simple fact: White America did not switch to another channel.
For eight nights, white viewers watched coarse, wicked whites inflict cruelty, from rape to maiming, upon peaceable, vulnerable, sensitive blacks. Whites folks joked uneasily among themselves, I can tell you, about this unfamiliar experience. "Maybe tonight's show will turn up a nice white person." And: "Back on the rack, it's time for 'Roots'."
The self-conscious wisecracks suggest that white people were drawn by guilt or a desire for self-flagellation. Maybe so. Maybe some social scientist will establish this in one of those super-scientific polls. In the meantime, I don't think so.
My hunch is that, among white viewers, something nearly the opposite of guilt was going on. Pride is a word too strong (and too ironic, under the circumstances), but I think the effect of "Roots" was, ironically, to make the story of slavery, the truth about it, accessible for white Americans for the first time. Yes, this TV series, so artfully put together, allows — even forces — white people to look upon slavery-and-freedom as their story too. Yes, even their triumph.
That possibility might rankle some black people who, after all, have tried for generations to get white Americans to focus on the black memory of our history. It's a bit much to suggest that white folks are now prepared to embrace it as their own.
Still, I think that roughly describes what happened last week. For one hundred years, for actually much longer, white Americans have always heard this story told in terms of their own moral redemption. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" established the literary frame: good white folks struggling with evil white folks over the fate of simple, hapless black creatures, idealized beyond recognition as human beings.
That mythology dominated virtually all racial questions until quite recently in our history. It was, of course, enormously satisfying for whites and, as a practical matter, it provided the political dynamic by which the black minority could lever change from the majority. As social mythology, it had its uses. But, on a gut level, people on both sides of these racial differences began slowly to recognize that it is a terribly immature basis for the mutual future, a scheme of values that reinforced racial hierarchy even as it sought to break it down.
Now this TV series called "Roots" trampled the old mythology into the dust, relentlessly tore it up. The first six shows offered a series of white characters who might "do good" for the black folk — the conscience-stricken ship captain, the gentle plantation owner, the master's daughter who taught Kizzy to read — and each became a creature of treachery, betraying friendship, inflicting random pain, tearing away Kunta Kinte's heritage.
If the white audience felt a bit giddy, it was an eccentric form of suspense — they kept waiting unconsciously for the white hero to emerge. After all, for generations, this has been the familiar dramatic convention for us and, especially on television, we expect the conventions to be honored. This time, each potential white hero (and heroine) became in turn a part of the evil.
Finally, in Part Seven, there emerged a pale substitute (pardon the expression) but it is not what the white audience has been waiting for. The white sharecropper, "Old George," and his wife are less than heroic — they are incompetent, dependent grateful for the aid the black slaves so freely offer.
In fact, "Old George" is a neat mirror image of that black stereotype from the old mythology — a helpless creature, good-hearted but none too bright, willing to learn, gushingly grateful for the good that is done for him. In short, not very believable.
So what kept so many white people at their sets? Why didn't they switch to something more satisfying on another channel? For one thing, "Roots" was exciting, with plenty of television's bread-and-butter — violence. The other networks, if you noticed, were scheduling all sorts of blood-and-gore in competition, trying to break up that huge audience watching ABC, but "Roots" promised the most exciting kind of violence — racial and sexual violence.
In the process, without any special controversy,the series introduced a number of once taboo images to national television, in vivid terms. Half-naked women. Black seduction. White-on-black rape. These racial-sexual motifs have always been powerful theater and, based on the success of "Roots," you can be sure the TV networks will do more of them, until perhaps familiarity renders them as stale as other TV themes.
Even so, I think the mature sex and racial violence was a secondary attraction to something much more important that "Roots" was doing. For these programs managed to cast the black story of slavery in totally familiar images — comfortable images that white people could recognize and identify with. So, during the course of eight programs, bombarded with evil white characters, any sensible white viewer identified with the familiar heroes — the black heroes.
Kunta Kinte's village was portrayed as a pristine Eden where natural man flourished before the invasion of civilization. This is a very old dream, of course, going back to Rousseau, and white Americans have been it often themselves — in the sympathetic movies about American Indians.
The young black warrior even seemed at times to talk like our mythical version of the Indian — an expressive language of natural imagery, rich in noble abstractions like courage and honor.
Torn away from his Eden, the black warrior struggles virtuously in another familiar mode. He and his kin are the classic pioneer family determined to be free and to survive. Instead of battling the cruel elements of nature and hostile Indians, they must struggle against wicked white men and the institution of slavery.
In every chapter, those familiar American qualities reverberate so strongly in the story, that racial differences become less and less important and another message — more conventional and satisfying for everyone — becomes the powerful theme.
This is the American story, "Roots" proclaim, in every qualitative dimension. This story of slaves struggling for freedom is the orthodox story of American values. Their virtues — courage, honor, family, mercy — are the American virtues, the ones we need to believe in as Americans. In short, the dramatic marvel of "Roots" is that it allows white Americans to watch that terrible racial history and instead of consuming guilt, they are encouraged to say to themselves — hey — that's my story too.
The conclusion of the series was so blatant in making this point, it almost became a parody. The black families were "heading west" in a wagon train to freedom — the familiar westward image that still dominates our imagination. The last dramatic scene of those ex-slaves showed them gathered on a green hillside in their new Eden, thanking God for their deliverance. They became "new people," like every pioneer, never mind that the West in this case was Tennessee.
So one might say that the TV craftsmen were providing a clever substitution — destroying the long-familiar moral framework through which whites have always looked at slavery and other racial questions, replacing it with comfortable images that are totally familiar to all Americans. In that sense, "Roots" is the direct descendant of a thousand Hollywood movies and 10,000 TV shows, the homogenized pop culture that idealizes our lives, our society.
The final montage of family snapshots, which shows the subsequent generations of Alex Haley's family, is outside the drama — and perhaps the most controversial distortion of history. It ends with Haley himself, a national literary hero now and, as every viewer knows, a very rich man.
The implicit message is, of course, that the American dream works for blacks too. Every child can make it to the top. That is a fundamental article of faith and an important one for all of us. But those rapid snapshots blur over 100 years of bitter history rather easily, erasing for mythology's sake the truth of that long, slow struggle toward racial equality.
"Roots" might have ended with a more troubling message for us. It might have suggested, as so many viewers noted for themselves, that many vestiges of the dreadful past are still evident in this American society, expressed indirectly in custom, legal process, economic status. That might have been a more authentic reporting of our shared racial history but, to be fair, TV is not a historian. It packages audiences by manufacturing popular myths.
Some people may regard all this as frivolous, but it is the most serious event one can imagine. The beginning of genuine racial equality must surely involve white people, against all their training, choosing black heroes.
From an editorial (page A22) on Feb. 7, 1977:
HOW DO YOU explain the monumental impact of "Roots"?
We would begin with the quality and the character of the work. Quite apart from the television adaptation, the book is a tour de force. In tracing his family back seven generations to his African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, Alex Haley has performed an act of genealogical research that had been presumed to be impossible. But there is more, obviously, to the rage for "Roots" than the magnitude of Mr. Haley's personal accomplishment. The explanation, we suspect, has much to do with a coincidence of timing and technology. As to the technology, it is enough to note the awesome power of television. A black historian recently commented about his own long years of study of African and Afro-American subjects. "I have been working with the documents on which much of 'Roots' was based for my life," said Prof. Michael Winston of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. "Yet, I was amazed at the vividness with which that same material came across on that screen. I just couldn't believe its impact." When that power of television is wedded to the drumbeat and bugle blare of Madison Avenue, the result can be an immense audience.
But the miracle of modern communications is still only a part of it. There is also the question of timing. One can only guess what the impact of "Roots" would have been a little more than a decade ago when black Americans were marching and singing hymns in the streets in a historic demand for equality before the law, in the marketplace and in the eyes of their countrymen. But our guess is that impact then would have been to inflame without necessarily enlightening, to reinforce the sense of guilt of many whites and the sense of shame of many blacks. And our guess is that the impact would also have been nowhere near as pervasive and power. Would a major network have made the gamble to put "Roots" on the air, in eight installments at prime time, in the 1960s?
Even as the civil rights laws were being passed, it was obvious to many blacks and whites that legal equality in thestrictest sense of the word would not make black Americans feel fully a part of the American society. And much of that complaint concerned the perception of blacks that the manner in which they had become Americans — in chains — was not yet fully understood by those who had become Americans by choice. It may not yet be fully understood. But it is not too much to say that the passage of the laws, and the the struggle that preceded their passage, helped clear the way for a deeper understanding — and "Roots." William Greider observed in this newspaper the other day that when the nation watched "Roots," it crossed "over deep water, stunning passage in the mass culture of America." Perhaps so. But we would venture the thought that white and black Americans alike were only able to make such a crossing because what had so recently been achieved made it possible for most white and black Americans to sit down as a people and hear the story of slavery with something more than guilt, on the one hand, or shame and anger, on the other. Our reading of the current national response to "Roots" would include at last some sense of shared progress and accomplishment, some collective measure of release and even pride in the way that whites and blacks are finally dealing with, as Mr. Greider put it, "our greatest national disgrace."
In the close of his book, Alex Haley express the hope "that this story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners." That is doubtless one of the contributions of "Roots." But the greatest contribution of the "Roots" phenomenon probably lies less in what effect it will have on future perceptions and behavior — in what it tells us about where we are going — than in what it confirms about where we are, and how far we have come.