Commemorating the 40th anniversary a year early, the landmark television miniseries Roots has been remastered and released on Blu-ray. Based on Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which spent 22 weeks as #1 on The New York Times Best Seller List and won a Pulitzer Prize, it purports to tell the story of Haley’s family traced back to the birth of his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte. However, Haley was taken to the court and reached a settlement requiring a six-figure payout and his acknowledgment that portions of Roots were taken from Harold Courlander’s 1967 novel The African. Setting aside those extremely unfortunate behind-the-scenes matters, Roots remains a powerful saga as it simultaneously tells the story of a family and of the United States.
The miniseries focuses on four main characters of the Kinte family. The first episode opens in The Gambia, West Africa, 1750, the night of Kunta Kinte’s birth. The story jumps ahead 15 years as Kunta (LeVar Burton) and other boys go through the village’s manhood experience. However, he is caught by slave traders. The episode with hopefulness that the Africans will unite and triumph over their captors, but the preview of the following episode makes clear they won’t.
It’s September 1767 when Davies’ ship returns to Annapolis in Episode Two. They left Africa with 140 men and women, arrived with only 98 alive when they made port. Kunta is sold to John Reynolds (Lorne Greene) who owns a tobacco plantation in Virginia and gives him the name Toby. Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.) works for Reynolds and is made responsible for Kunta’s transition, but the African is defiant and does not take to the name Toby. One day, he escapes, not knowing how futile the effort is because he doesn’t know the ways of America or his surrounding. This results in the classic scene where Kunta is whipped until he relents and says his name is “Toby.”
Episode Three takes place nine years later. Kunta/Toby is played by John Amos and has been sold to John’s brother, Dr. William Reynolds (Robert Reed). Kunta escapes to find Fanta, a woman he knew from Africa that he is infatuated with on a nearby plantation. They reunite but this time he pays a higher price for running away. Episode Four, set four years later in 1780, finds Kunta and another slave Bell (Madge Sinclair) get married and have a baby girl they name Kizzy. In Episode Five, Kizzy (Leslie Uggams) is 16 and because she has been taught to read and write by Dr. Reynolds’ “niece” Anne, she helps Noah to escape. When this is found out, she is punished by being sold off to Tom Moore (Chuck Connors), who rapes her, resulting in the birth of their son George.
Episode Six starts in 1824 when George is 18. He has such an affinity training Tom’s gamecocks to fight he gets the nickname Chicken George (Ben Vereen). This ability offers great promise as George hopes to earn his freedom with his skills, but that presumes he would be treated fairly or can trust a white man’s word. Episode Seven sees the the Civil War break out and George’s son Tom (Georg Stanford Brown) is working as a blacksmith on a North Carolina farm. During the final episode, the war ends and the slaves are freed, but that doesn’t stop some whites from terrorizing them. During the last couple minutes, Haley appears on screen and reveals Tom’s daughter Cynthia is his grandmother.
While the accuracy of what occurs in Roots may come into question, the authenticity of the stories told never does thanks in large part to the talented ensemble. The project offered an unprecedented number of speaking parts for African Americans on broadcast television up to that time, and it still might hold the record, and the actors and actresses make the most of the opportunity provided no matter how large the role. What’s wild, and was likely more shocking at the time, is to see such familiar faces of people like Ralph Waite, Lorne Greene, and Chuck Connors, famous for playing beloved fathers on TV, acting as such despicable characters.
The video has been given an 1080P/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The picture looks sharp with strong colors like the lush green foliage of the jungle. The only exceptions are when stock footage is used and during dissolves. The blacks are inky and there is quality shadow delineation as seen in the hold of the slave transport ship. The image looks clean, and exhibits good depth and film grain. Smoke from cannon firing on the ship looks like it was added by special effects, and the grain increases in those portions of the frame. The picture quality is also diminished during zooms that were done in post production. The original mono audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Dialogue is intelligible throughout. The music and effects are clear. The mix is balanced together well, but the dynamic range is limited.
Disc 3 contains all the extras. New to this set are “Roots: The American Story Continues” (HD, 27 min), a star-studded look at the series and the impact it continues to have; and “Roots: The Cast Looks Back (29 min) does the same thing with different contributors.
All the other extras come from the 30th anniversary DVD or earlier. A group of people that includes a cultural critic, actors Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones, and those associated with the production like Levar Burton, executive producer David L. Wolper, and ABC executives like Fred Silverman were interviewed separately and edited together into the following featurettes: “Crossing Over: How Roots Captivated an Entire Nation” (SD, 20 min) looks at the miniseries’ making and impact; “Connecting with the Past” (SD, 13 min) is about how people connecting to the stories; and “The Struggle to Make Roots (SD, 23 min) focuses on the production and the hiring of 20-year-old Burton, who was making his acting debut.
There is also the “LeVar Burton: Original Screen Test” (SD, 8 min), portions of which are in the previous extra. “Alex Haley Interview by David Frost” (SD, 37 min) from The David Frost Show that occurred after the release of the book and before airing of the miniseries because Haley only talks about his book. “Roots: One Year Later” (48 min) is the TV special “The Phenomenon of Roots.” Hosted by Louis Gossett, Jr., it looks back on the miniseries’ impact, presumably one year later.
Roots is not just an important television drama but an essential story that should be used when teaching U.S. History. The remastering done for the Blu-ray will help preserve it and the extras give it context. Highly recommended.
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