I wasn't even born yet when Roots first aired, but I remember when the Family Channel ran it circa 1992, and I watched it just as breathlessly then as anyone could have back in 1977. Around that same time, my grade-school history teacher decided we should watch the miniseries in class. (She probably taped it from TV, now that I think about it.) Even then, I could have identified several reasons why this was a bad idea: first of all, the amount of classroom time a 12-hour miniseries takes up was almost certainly more than the official curriculum set aside for the historical period at hand. One could also question the wisdom of expecting thirty-odd fifth-graders to be on their best behavior while following a storyline that involved multiple incidences of sexual assault and rape. And, of course, the 1970s production values and Southern-flavored plantation patois, not to mention the many actors we recognized from less serious roles (after all, we had been herded together to watch Reading Rainbow only a few years prior), weren't completely conducive to maturity on our part. But even with all the snickering and squirming and general lack of respect, I can't say that classroom time was wasted. I learned an awful lot about slavery, war and reconstruction from Roots that I wouldn't have learned if we'd stuck to the textbook, and I gained an appreciation for the African-American experience that I certainly wouldn't have picked up from the standard Black History Month bulletin-board displays in the hallways of my all-white school.
Roots (along with its follow-up, Roots: The Next Generations, about which more in a moment) is one of those rare television confections one can enjoy both ironically and sincerely at the same time. Ironically because it was produced in the 1970s, and everything that came out of the 1970s bears the stylistic slime of that decade, regardless of the historical period in which it is actually set: see also Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons, for more inappropriately wide collars and feathered hairstyles. (I also commented on this phenomenon recently in reference to Angela Lansbury's turn in the 1977 revival of The King and I.) Also because the miniseries features pretty much every actor alive at that time, black or white, in its cast of thousands. And because many of those actors play characters who age many decades over the course of the series, which means either they are ignominously replaced at some point -- I am still angry about the LeVar Burton/John Amos switcheroo, because on what planet is it possible that someone who looked like this would, in a time before cosmetic surgery or artificial human growth hormones were widely available, end up looking like this? -- or else they are buried beneath ever-thickening layers of aging makeup. But it's actually pretty good makeup, considering the era, and most of the young actors do a surprisingly good job of embodying their elderly characters and preserving some dignity despite their increasingly puffy and immobile faces.
And that's where the sincere appreciation starts to kick in: sure, this makeup (by special effects wiz Stan Winston) is a little bit silly, but it's also rather skillful (and certainly no more silly than subbing in John Amos for LeVar Burton). And the story may be a bit melodramatic, but for the most part it's intelligent and deeply affecting. The director may push our emotional buttons a bit too vigorously from time to time, but I defy you to watch Louis Gossett Jr.'s "There gonna be a better day" scene at the end of Roots, Part 3 (or is it Part 2?) and not cry honest tears. Not all the acting is good -- some of it is awful -- but a lot of it is excellent. And yes, there's a significant humor factor in seeing, for example, Robert Reed playing a plantation owner, but then again, what better way to impress upon us the casual treachery and hypocrisy of our white ancestors than to have them portrayed by lovable TV dads like Robert Reed?
The reason I'm musing on this topic right now is that TV One, a "lifestyle and entertainment channel for African-Americans," is airing Roots: The Next Generations all this week. (They aired Roots back in April, and if you travel in the upper reaches of New York City you're likely to see the advertisements on city buses even now.) I remember watching this series years ago (also in school, perhaps) and concluding that it was boring and not as good as the original. But I've been watching it again this week, and I'm pleasantly surprised by its quality. Perhaps I am simply more disposed to appreciate plotlines that center on the Reconstruction era and Jim Crow politics than I was in middle school. I'm afraid you've missed your chance to see a very young Brian [Stokes] Mitchell, who appeared in Part 1 as a too-white(!) suitor for one of the central character's daughters. And I'm not sure whether Olivia De Havilland, so strong as a fading belle adjusting to the postwar South, will be back in Part 3. But you're not too late to catch solid performances from Henry Fonda, Richard Thomas and Stan Shaw, and they tell me Marlon Brando will make an appearance at some point! Meanwhile, Georg Stanford Brown is holding everything together with dignity and strength as the central character, Tom Harvey, in spite of his oddly waxy face. Not everything is perfect -- heavyhanded music cues abound, and Lynne Moody's dreadful performance is a constant embarrassment (all the more because she's also hosting the TV One presentation, and keeps coming back to tell us how much she enjoyed being a part of this important television event). And, of course, there's the vaguely ungrammatical title. I cringe every time they say "Next Generations." But overall, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours (or twelve hours). I may be laughing at the hairstyles, but when it's over I feel like I'm a better person for having watched. And how often do you say that after an evening in front of the TV?