Saturday, August 4, 2007

Up from slavery

The fiance and I have finally finished working our way through all seven episodes of Roots: The Next Generations, which I wrote about when we started watching it nearly a month ago. It took us a while to watch the last three episodes, partly because we had fewer nights in and partly because the series got steadily worse as it neared its conclusion. The sixth installment, which centers on Alex Haley's young adulthood, is the worst by far; the seventh is an improvement, but still not as enjoyable as the earlier chapters. That's the one where the grown Alex Haley starts researching the project that became Roots, and it turns out our man Alex isn't nearly as much fun to root for as his ancestors (even if you can forget all that unappealing plagiarism and falsified research stuff).

Until we got to part 5, which introduces little Alex, things were still moving along nicely. Although the series' Emmy awards and nominations went to people like Marlon Brando and Ruby Dee, who had brief appearances and gave their hammy all, the real work falls to actors like Georg Stanford Brown, Stan Shaw and Dorian Harewood, whose characters age many decades and arc across several episodes. I wrote a little about Brown, who plays Tom Harvey, the central character of the final episodes of Roots and the first episodes of The Next Generations, last time. Now that I've seen the whole series, I have to say Stan Shaw turns in the best performance of all -- playing Alex Haley's grandfather, Will Palmer, he never misses a chance to say "here" and pronounce it "chyah" ("Now you look chyah!" "Right chyah in Tennessee!"). He has a fascinating face, all oversized features, which he uses to telegraph his emotions with total clarity. He finds the humor in every scene while managing to maintain his dignity -- even when aged, Stan Winston-style, with sheets of latex and rubber cement. He's a delight, and I was sorry to see him go. But I enjoyed watching Dorian Harewood (as his son, Simon Haley) nearly as much. Harewood lacks Palmer's expressive face -- he communicates Simon Haley's many moods with a single expression, an open-mouthed "surprised" look that proves low-key but shockingly effective.

The women alongside these actors don't come off quite as well, but that's partly because they tend to be more heavily burdened by the abovementioned aging makeup. Usually the men get away with some bags beneath their eyes and an altered hairstyle or hairline -- much less distracting and just as convincing, even if it isn't always accurate (appearances from real-life, modern-day Stan Shaw demonstrate that he actually got quite a bit wider as he aged, while, in the miniseries, everyone stays trim). There are also a lot of ill-advised closeups on Shaw's smooth, unwrinkled hands in Part 5, when he's supposed to be a very old man. But the women have it harder; by the time they reach old age, they're hidden behind so many layers of immobile latex they look like they're standing behind one of those painted portraits with the eyes cut out (like on Scooby Doo). Bever-Leigh Banfield, as Cynthia Palmer, was the strangest-looking "old lady" of all (she also wins the prize for oddest spelling of "Beverly" I've ever come across), so that may be why they recast the role in part 5, but it confused me -- I kept staring at Beah Lewis, trying to figure out who she was supposed to be. (The old ladies rocking on the porch do blend together after a while.)

As far as performances go, the one woman who really sticks in my mind is Irene Cara (playing Alex's mother, Bertha). Yes, that Irene Cara, and yes, every time she appeared I felt the need to sing out, "What a feeling!" or "Baby remember my name (remembah! remembah!)." (Sometimes, if it was a sad scene, I'd sing it sadly.) But she's really not half bad -- and (spoiler alert!) she's lucky enough to die young, before being required to don the latex face of the aged. The worst she has to contend with is the ashen face of the mysteriously ailing.

As you watch the series hurtle forward, from decade to decade, you can't help but marvel at the swift march of time. Experiencing "history" this way, it becomes impossible to think of slavery as something long-ago and irrelevant, and you begin to appreciate the many forms and faces of racism. Roots has its share of mustache-twirling villains, but for each of them there's a handful of casual, well-meaning racists belittling, condescending to or simply fetishizing the African-Americans descended from our very first hero, Kunta Kinte.

The story stretches right up to the present (the 1970s present), but it loses its fizzle after World War I. When Alex himself comes on the scene in part 5, his presence is distracting, because the script can't resist calling him by his full name ("You come with me, Alex Haley!") and foreshadowing his future ("Someday you'll tell this story!"). Once born, he's present in almost every scene, even when it seems most unlikely that he'd actually have been there -- he watches, quietly and sometimes spookily, as the story ambles forward, but we don't learn much about him; he's more of a presence than a personality. This problem persists in part 6, where the role is taken over by the charmless Damon Evans (whom the fiance referred to, gleefully and ultimately disdainfully, as "Lionel from The Jeffersons"). In terms of characterization, he doesn't get much help from the script, which is far from subtle, nor from Lloyd Richards's inept direction. (Television was not his medium.) The chronology is fuzzy, the performances are jumpy, and individual scenes are so obviously spliced together from multiple takes that I began to pay more attention to the continuity errors ("He had his sleeves pushed up in the last shot!") than to the dialogue. Our hero countinues to remind us of his full name at regular intervals, but he doesn't give us any real reason to care about what happens to Alex Haley -- when Simon Haley joined the army during WWI, we saw him in a foxhole, saving the other men's lives; Alex's Coast Guard service during WWII is a whirl of bawdy jokes, clammy courtship scenes and ghostwritten love letters for his shipmates.

James Earl Jones takes over in part 7, and in physical terms the swap is nearly as ludicrous as the LeVar Burton/John Amos switch in the original Roots. Here, though, I was nothing but grateful; if we must follow Alex through his lifelong identity crisis, at least we'll have a talented actor to watch. But even Jones can't make the climax as triumphant as it ought to be; the scripting in the final installment is too obvious ("You're looking for plantation records, you say? Why, certainly, I have them right here on top of this pile of books"), and there's only so much you can do to make the life of a frustrated writer and serial mistreater of women seem heroic. And, as I said, there's that whole ugly plagiarism/falsification scandal to take the air out of the ending. Still, episodes 1-4 are more than worth watching, even if none of this ever really happened. And next time it rolls around, I think I'll be ready to rewatch the original Roots.

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