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Brilliant but ego-centered at the end,
This review is from: The Complete Roots Collection: Original Series (30th Anniversary Edition) [DVD]  (DVD)
ALEX HALEY - ROOTS - ROOTS THE NEXT GENERATIONS
This TV mini-series has become a classic in thirty years and it deserves to be. Yet the quality of the filming and editing has aged and the film is not served by the fact it was done for television that tends to show too many close-ups and to avoid vast rapid movements and wide landscapes. But it has become a classic by its theme.
The first mini series deals with the fate of black people from when they were captured in Africa to their liberation after the Civil War. The vision of Africa in the 18th century is slightly improved on what it was. Some rituals are nicely evoked but not shown, circumcision for example, and nothing is said about excision for the girls. The capturing of Bantu blacks in western Africa and their enslaving had been going on for centuries. The new thing is that the captured Bantu blacks were no longer sold as slaves to the northern Moslem tribes or even Moslem Maghreb people, but to the whites for only one reason: the whites paid better and more. It seems to be done in order to avoid any restrictive rating. It is the same with the whole period about slavery. The film concentrates on odious but altogether rather limited facts: one whipping, a couple of children sold, very few rapes by the whites who produced mulattos that could be sold for a profit. The hardships of field work are also curbed. The living conditions and quarters are quite luxurious when we know what it really was. Even the Civil War is shown with a lot of reserve. They may say the number of dead but they don't show the battles, the medical care of the wounded, the savagery of the war and the innumerable amputees and victims. Altogether the first part is rather tamed. It enhances the main theme of this first part: one has to retain the memory of one's origins, roots, past, even if only a name, a few words, a few episodes. Those recollections passed from one generation to the next will feed the sense of belonging, the hope that brings the future, the light that may one day illuminate the dull and dark present. And the joy of the liberation is important, but the first part ends on a closure too: the whites are still there and the blacks have to live with them and compromises are not always easy to find and not always to the real benefit of the blacks. Slavery is replaced by sharecropping but the black sharecroppers start with the debts that are attributed to them to pay for what they need to work and they should get free since they worked for nothing for decades. That's how it works with the whites in the South, and yet the family we are speaking of managed to finagle a plan to get the mules free and to move out without paying for the debts of slavery from North Carolina to Tennessee where one freed member who got the chance to make some wealth in England had bought some land. That's the real freedom this family achieves after the Civil war: to possess the land they till and thus the harvest they grow.
The second part is telling the history of the USA after the Civil War as much at least as the history of this family. So we see the reconstruction period, and the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, the imposition of segregation, WWI, the New Deal and WWII, and then the post war period. In this second series that ends with the author Haley as the main character, I am amazed that it is more contemplative of the injustice coming up than really fighting against it. The only positive point is education. But if there is some kind of resistance it is always one person and not the community. In the 1930s, the subsidies voted by Congress to small farmers to help them survive the crisis and get even, blacks included, are systematically, for the blacks at least, hijacked by the land-owners and if one black farmer manages to get his check it is the private initiative of one man and the black farmer ends up in prison, wounded and to stay in prison for a while and his mules have been repossessed by the landowner and he has been totally pauperized and expelled from the county if not the state. If after WWII there is some improvement the discourse is concentrating on the personal efforts of Alex Haley, his own personal way to wealth and grace. The closest we get to the struggle of the black community for the end of discrimination and more justice is a couple of scenes with Malcolm X and his assassination. But where are Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the collective massive battles waged by the blacks, including against the Vietnam War? Even Kennedy is some kind of epiphenomenon that does not count for much, and his assassination is not even evoked. That has to lead to a real ego trip at the end and Alex Haley going back to Gambia and meeting with the griot of the village of his ancestors and hearing from his mouth the story that had been told from generation to generation in his family and meeting one last descendant who still has the name Kinte like the ancient ancestor Kunta Kinte. And Alex Haley himself adds a verbose conclusion about the importance of knowing one's ancestors. What pride am I supposed to get from the fact that my ancestors were the serfs of a small nobleman? That kind of nostalgia may make us unable to embrace the future today.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID