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Series / Roots (1977)

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"Kunta Kinte, behold the only thing greater than yourself!"
Omoro Kinte

Roots was a Mini Series based on a novel about the family line of its author, Alex Haley, and their struggles coping with slavery from the time of his ancestor Kunta Kinte's enslavement to his Civil War descendants' liberation.

First broadcast in late January and early February 1977, the series was a tremendous success, prompting new public interest in genealogy and, in regard to television, established the Mini Series as a high profile prestige format for prime time.

The first Roots, the generally better received one, went only up through The American Civil War, while a 1979 Sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, picked up in 1865 and went through to Alex Haley himself, culminating in his visiting Kunte Kinte's home village in the 1970s.

1988 brought a third (fictional) entry: Roots: The Gift. This was a single two-hour side story, bringing back LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte. As a piece of trivia, this film features a few actors who would be in Star Trek productions, just as LeVar Burton was. Avery Brooks (Captain Benjamin Sisko), Kate Mulgrew (Captain Kathryn Janeway), and Tim Russ (Lieutenant Tuvok).


LeVar Burton helped produce a remake of the first series in 2016 that apparently had new facts that had come up about Kunta Kinte's life since the first one was made (they included his growing up in a city rather than a village and that he knew several languages, including a smattering of English).

This show provides examples of:

  • 2 + Torture = 5: "Your name is TOBY!"
  • A Taste of the Lash: What the slaves are often subjected to.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Tom Moore was Tom Lea in the novel. Chicken George was also Lea for obvious reasons.
  • Adult Fear: Being powerless to stop your children from being abducted, or from being raped by your superiors.
  • Agony of the Feet: Half of Kunta Kinte's foot is cut off to stop him from any more escape attempts.
  • Arc Words: "(Name), behold! The only thing greater than yourself!"; in the later episodes, the story each generation of Kunta Kinte's family tells about their family tree.
  • Artistic License – History: Though the series is (rightly) praised for its unflinching depiction of the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade, its depiction of white "slave catchers" is a bit historically inaccurate. In Real Life, though the slave trade itself was facilitated by European and American traders, slavery was well-institutionalized in West African states, which were often as well-developed as their European counterparts. Most African slaves were already enslaved by other Africans, when they were sold to Europeans, most often by having been taken as captives in warfare, and sold them for profit in legal trade—not by white slavers who traveled into the interior of Africa to quietly ambush slaves one by one (indeed, Europeans who sought to forcibly and illegally capture slaves were typically dealt with mercilessly by forces of the African states well into 18th century. Not to mention there were many tropical diseases whites suffered from that made it dangerous). This involvement of Africans in others' enslavement is mentioned in the series but not directly shown (the remake corrects it).
    • On a minor note, some elements of the characters personal lives are eliminated or exaggerated. Alex Haley was married three times, but only one of these marriages is depicted.
  • All There in the Manual: There is a somewhat obscure special called: Roots: The Gift that takes place between Parts 2 and 3 of the series that explains how Kunta and Fiddler moved to John Reynolds' plantation.
  • Auction of Evil: After surviving the Middle Passage, Kunta is bought by John Reynolds at a slave auction in Annapolis, Maryland, before being taken to work at the Reynolds' plantation in Virginia.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Well, maybe not an intentional lie. But while the book was classified as a novel, and Alex Haley admitted that many of the events were his invention, he also claimed that he had really traced his ancestry back seven generations, to a West African man named Kunta Kinte who was kidnapped by slavers and sent into slavery in the American South. In fact, as The Other Wiki notes, the documentary evidence contradicts Haley's accounts, and the oral histories and testimony he relied on is unreliable and contradictory as well. There is little to suggest that any of Alex Haley's history before Chicken George is factual.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: The cockfight.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama: In The Next Generations, Colonel Warner's son falls in Love at First Sight with schoolteacher Carrie. The reaction from both communities is. . .not pleasant. His father and brother outright disown him, though the former has the decency to ask the local Klan not to harass the couple.
    • Tom refuses to let his daughter Elizabeth marry a light-skinned man, given that he's so light, he could pass for white if he wanted to.
  • But Not Too Black: Inverted. Throughout his portion of the novel, Kunta has nothing but contempt for light-skinned blacks who are clearly the result of their mother's rape by a white man. When his daughter Kizzy gives birth to such a child, she is similarly distressed at how fair he is.
    • It comes up several times during the second miniseries. In particular, Tom refuses to let his daughter marry a light-skinned man, knowing that he's the result of this type of union. His wife blasts him for his hypocrisy, reminding him of how his father was conceived and that he himself is 1/4 white.
    • Occasional taunts—and legitimate discussion—are filtered throughout both series. Haley's girlfriend points out that Lena Horne is regarded as beautiful because of her light complexion.
  • Changed My Mind, Kid: Pettijohn refusing to stick his neck out again for Simon Haley and help save Ab Dekker.
  • Child by Rape: Chicken George to Kizzy.
    • Elizabeth's beau John​ is likely this to his mother as well.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The racist and sexist attitudes of the the times, obviously. And the way people of either race are looked down on for pursuing higher education, given that farming was the primary way to make a living.
  • Education Mama: Queen, determined to keep Simon at college instead of coming back to be a farmer.
    • Simon himself goes ballistic when Alex informs him that he's dropped out of school.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Dr. Waller seems genuinely shocked and disappointed in Missy Anne's uncaring reaction to Kizzy being sold off, even though he himself just sold her.
  • False Friend: Missy Anne who did nothing to try to save Kizzy after her uncle sold her to another slave owner, and had the gall to feel betrayed for Kizzy helping out some abolitionists.
  • Family Drama: Extended multigenerational.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Kunta Kinte tells Bell to let him die rather than suffer as a slave. Kizzy pleads for her master to kill her instead of raping her.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: A lynching victim is approached with a torch. . .and cut to some men carrying a closed casket away from the scorched tree.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Throughout his portion of the novel, Kunta has nothing but contempt for light-skinned blacks who are clearly the result of their mother's rape by a white man. When his daughter Kizzy gives birth to such a child, she is similarly distressed at how fair he is.
    • It comes up several times during the second miniseries. In particular, Tom refuses to let his daughter marry a light-skinned man, knowing that he's the result of this type of union. His wife blasts him for his hypocrisy, reminding him of how his father was conceived and that he himself is 1/4 white.
  • Hero of Another Story: Alex Haley's paternal grandmother Queen is introduced during Simon Haley's portion of the sequel miniseries. Haley died before he could complete his novel about her life, which was just as complicated as his mother's side. It was eventually finished by a ghost writer and turned into a miniseries of its own.
  • Historical-Domain Character: George Rockwell and Malcolm X as interview subjects for Alex Haley. He developed a friendship with the latter and wrote his autobiography.
  • Interquel: The Gift takes place during young Kunta's portion of the original miniseries.
  • Large Ham: George "Chicken George" Moore.
  • Made a Slave: Kunta Kinte.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Kunta Kinte getting forcibly renamed to Toby.
  • The Man Is Keeping Us Down: And how! There are a couple of sympathetic whites, though, particularly George Johnson and his wife.
  • Married to the Job: Alex becomes so obsessed with becoming a writer that he neglects his family. His fed-up wife finally takes the children and leaves after he stands them up on Christmas Eve. He fails to learn a lesson from this—ten years later, his new girlfriend dumps him, equally fed-up with being second-best to his desire to trace his heritage.
  • Moving the Goalposts: Fiddler finally saves enough money to buy his freedom, only to have the master tell him that his musical abilities make him more valuable than the average slave, meaning that he'll have to save even more funds.
  • One-Word Title: The series is based on a novel of the same name, about the family line of its author.
  • Oral Tradition: Kunta Kinte's stories of his life in the Gambia before being enslaved are passed down to his descendants for the next six generations. This allows Alex Haley to trace his ancestry to the village of Jufureh in 1967, 200 years after Kunta was captured by white slavers from the Lord Ligonier.
  • Out, Damned Spot!: Captain Davies of the Lord Ligonier has never hauled slaves before. He considers himself a moral Christian man, and cannot get the nagging of his conscience to leave him at peace. It seems he was merely assigned to this task, which could explain his apprehension. At first he is so torn that he can't bear to even look at the slaves. By the end of the voyage, the formerly healthy and professional captain is pale, ill, and has dark circles under his eyes because of his conscience. He is extremely disheartened to learn that this is only the first of many slave-hauling trips he will be required to make.
  • Parental Marriage Veto:
    • Jim's father threatens to disown him should he marry Carrie and does so. Disturbingly, he is perfectly happy and willing to help Jim keep Carrie as a mistress.
    • Tom refusing to let Elizabeth marry John.
  • Pet the Dog: Some of the masters have a couple of moments that could count — even Tom Moore.
  • Playing Gertrude: The actress playing Kizzy was 3 years older than the guy who played her son, Chicken George (it's necessary though, since she also played a younger version of Kizzy).
  • Prison Riot: One happens in the slave ship transporting Kunta Kinte.
  • Rite of Passage: During the first episode, the adolescent boys of the village are taken out to a remote area and subjected to several rites of passage.
  • Stock Subtitle: Roots the Next Generations.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: The elderly Kizzy spits in the cup of water that she fetches for the equally old Missy Anne when they finally meet again, after the latter fails to recognize or remember her.
  • Timeshifted Actor: A couple, but specifically LeVar Burton and John Amos as young and old Kunta Kinte.
    • Alex Haley is portrayed by three different actors in the follow-up miniseries.
  • Time Skip: Occasionally. For example, Part One of the original miniseries ends with LeVar Burton's young Kunta nearly being whipped to death. The next episode opens with John Amos playing middle-aged Kunta.
  • Token Minority: Alex and his soon-to-be girlfriend joke about them being this at a party where they are indeed the only black people.
  • Train-Station Goodbye: Simon and Bertha in the sequel miniseries.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Alex is craving this from Simon and finally gets it after publishing his autobiography of Malcolm X.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Alex grows more and more neglectful of his family as he grows more and more obsessed with becoming a writer. This culminates in him standing them up on Christmas Eve and his fed-up wife finally taking the children and leaving him.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Kunta Kinte/Toby.
  • You Have Failed Me: After Kunta Kinte breaks his chains and escapes, he is quickly captured and is being prepared to be whipped as punishment. Fiddler, who was tasked by his master John Reynolds into training "Toby" to be a proper field hand, sees this and begs John Reynolds to have mercy on "Toby", appealing to John Reynolds' desire to protect his investment. John Reynolds word for word quotes this trope. Fiddler knows that not only does this mean "Toby" will be whipped (at one point, it looks like he may be whipped to death), but it means Fiddler himself will likely lose his preferential treatment and privileges.


Example of: