This one might seem a little out of place, being a TV mini-series rather than a straight film, but it made such an impression on me when I was 11 years old that I feel need to include it; Alex Haley’s Roots. This really was the first really huge mini-series, and set the stage for other “television movie events” such as The Thornbirds, The Blue and the Grey, and V. It was such an event that watching Roots was our homework for the days it was on, back in 6th grade.
The series tells the story of a family of Africans originally brought to the United States as slaves, and who experience a lot of history in the process of becoming free. It begins in Africa with Kunta Kinte (played by future Star Trek star LeVar Burton in his debut role), who is captured by slavers and brought to America. There, he has a great deal of trouble accepting his new role, is seen as rebellious and attempts escape. He is befriended by another slave, Fiddler (played by Louis Gosset Jr.), who teaches him not only English but the role of the slave. One of the most famous scenes in the entire mini-series focuses on Kunta Kinte being forced to respond to the name he has been given; Toby. An adult (now played by John Amos), eventually he is maimed after yet another escape attempt and eventually settles into his lot, marrying Belle and fathering another slave, Kizzy.
Kizzy (played by Leslie Uggams), now a teen, seems to be genuinely friends with her white owner’s daughter, Missy Anne (Sandy Duncan), who even teaches her to read (which is forbidden). The secret is revealed eventually, and she is sold off to another owner, Tom Moore (Chuck Connors), who rapes her and fathers a son by her; George.
When George (played by Ben Vereen) grows into manhood, he is the constant companion of Moore, being skilled at the art of chicken fighting and earning the nickname Chicken George. Because of his skills at chicken fighting, he is sent to England, where he eventually earns his freedom and returns to America, where his son, Tom Harvey (Georg Stanford Brown), is a blacksmith. Of course, the white slave holders are less than impressed with George’s papers of manumission, and there are some great scenes between him and them. The Civil War breaks out, and eventually George, Tom, and their families are freed. Reconstruction sees the appearance of the Ku Klux Klan, and eventually the families move to Tennessee to start a new life, and the series ends.
The cast for this production is simply incredible. Aside from those named above, Lloyd Bridges, Edward Asner, Robert Reed, Vic Morrow, George Hamilton, Burl Ives, O.J. Simpson… the cast is a virutal who’s who of late 1970’s acting talent. The story is completely engaging (even for an 11 year old, which should tell you something), and although there is a bewildering number of characters, each is drawn so well and distinctly that even as a kid I had no problem following who was who. The writing and dialog are impeccable, and there is action, humor, and most especially drama in a fine mix.
I had the opportunity to re-watch the series last year, and it aged very well indeed. The story and characters were still as powerful and compelling as they were some thirty-odd years ago. As a youth, the series made me appreciate a chapter of American history that had hitherto been unknown to me, and as an adult I found the story of that family to be especially poignant and compelling. There was a Roots The Next Generations, but it paled in comparison with the larger-than-life story of slaves struggling to be free, and unfortunately while such comparisons are inevitable, they doomed the sequel to looking pale indeed by the light of its predecessor.
If you’ve never seen this series, do yourself the favor and seek it out on Netflix or Youtube.