Follow TV Tropes


Series / Roots (1977)

Go To

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

Roots was a TV Mini Series based on the eponymous 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 on ABC in January 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 Reconstruction after The American Civil War, while a 1979 Sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, picked up in 1882 and went through to Alex Haley himself, culminating in his visiting Kunte Kinte's home village in 1967.

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 several actors who would later appear in various Star Trek productions, including Burton (Commander Geordi La Forge), 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, which 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!"
  • Accordion to Most Sailors: One of the sailors on the slave ship plays an accordion.
  • Actionized Adaptation: The ending, specifically. In the book, Chicken George and his family were able to leave their former plantation easily once slavery was done. In the series, the Senator and Evan Brent prevent them from leaving by making up a bull-shit excuse about debt. So the group has to trick Evan into being surrounded, before tying him to a tree and then leaving for good.
  • Advertisement:
  • 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.
  • Agony of the Feet: Half of Kunta Kinte's foot is cut off to stop him from making any more escape attempts.
  • 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.
  • Arc Words:
    • "(Name), behold! The only thing greater than yourself!"
    • In the later episodes, the story each generation of Kunta Kinte's family tells the next about their family tree and pass on several Mandinka words. For instance, "kamby bolongo" means "river" and "ko" means "fiddle." Particular emphasis is placed on the fact that they had to cut off part of Kunta's foot to stop him from escaping. His determination and strength of will is often a source of inspiration to his descendants.
  • Ascended Extra: Tom Harvey is introduced as a minor character in Part VI of the original miniseries before becoming the protagonist in its final two episodes and the first two episodes of The Next Generations.
  • As Himself: Bobby Short plays himself in the final episode of The Next Generations.
  • 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.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: The cockfight.
  • Big Guy Fatality Syndrome: The wrestler from Kunta’s village dies during the battle on the slave ship.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama:
    • In The Next Generations, Colonel Warner's son Jim falls in Love at First Sight with schoolteacher Carrie Barden. The reaction from both communities is...not pleasant. His father and brother Andy 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 named John Dolan, given that he's so light, he could pass for white if he wanted to. His wife Irene accuses him of being hypocritical as Tom is himself one-quarter white.
  • Bus Crash: After a Time Skip where the focus of the series shifts from Kunta to Kizzy, when she is sold to another slave owner, she goes back to her former owners plantation to find her parents only to discover that they both died offscreen. However, the scene is effective because it shows the tragedy of Kizzy never seeing her parents again after being sold.
  • 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 Irene blasts him for his hypocrisy, reminding him of how his father Chicken George was conceived and that he himself is 1/4 white.
    • Occasional taunts—and legitimate discussion—are filtered throughout both series. Haley's girlfriend Odile Richards 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 Dolan is likely this to his mother as well.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
    • Tom Harvey's younger brother Lewis is a major supporting character in the final two episodes of the original series while his son Bud is a minor one in the final episode. However, they are neither seen nor mentioned in The Next Generations.
    • Simon's second wife Zeona is a major supporting character in the penultimate episode of The Next Generations but there is no reference to her in the final episode.
  • Copycat Mockery: Chicken George does this a lot, especially to white folks. On one occasion, he amuses his family by imitating a sheriff he heard talking about forming the Klan.
  • Cradle To Grave Character: We meet Kunta Kinte soon after he's born, in the village of Juffre, Gambia, in the middle of the 18th century. In his late teens, we see him getting captured and sold to slave traders that transport him across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa, and is then auctioned off to John Reynolds, who intends to put him to work in his tobacco plantation. After being forced to acknowledge his name is now "Toby", and after several failed escape attempts, Kunta realizes he'll never go home and that he'll be a slave for the rest of his life. After being sold to Reynolds' brother William, he marries a female slave named Bell, and they have a daughter named Kizzy, who in her a teenage years brings the wrath of their owner. A middle-aged Kunta and Bell helplessly see her sold off to another plantation. Years later, while being courted by a slave named Sam Bennett, Kizzy goes back to the Reynolds' plantation, where she learns her mother was sold off to another plantation, and her father was buried under a wooden grave marker. She uses a rock to scratch out "Toby" and write "Kunta Kinte" underneath, before returning to her own plantation.
  • Dead Guy Junior:
    • Two of Chicken George's descendants are named in his honor: his great-granddaughter Bertha George Palmer and her son George Haley.
    • Alex Haley was named after his paternal grandfather, who died three years before he was born.
  • Deconstruction: Was meant to be one of the old movies from the 30s and 40s that glorified the south and slavery, especially Gone with the Wind, by showing the audience exactly how horrible the whole system was. It was so successful, it killed off those kinds of movies entirely.
  • 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. Reynolds 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.
  • Family-Values Villain: Kunta’s first master is seen bringing back gifts for his wife and daughters along with his new slave and trying to bring up the family in what was considered proper for the time.
  • Famous Ancestor: Mrs. Bulfinch tells Alex that she has traced her ancestry back to William the Conqueror.
  • 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.
  • Generational Saga: The two original miniseries tell the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants over the course of seven generations, culminating in Alex Haley himself.
  • Genre Deconstruction: The novel and miniseries were written in response to the “Lost Cause” genre from the 30s and 40s, which portrayed slavery as benign or even benevolent, and the south as innocent victims of northern aggression (see Gone with the Wind and The Littlest Rebel for examples). In Roots, slavery is shown as the barbaric practice it truly was, and the white southern families who normally would’ve been the focus are shown as cold and cruel, or at least severely naive. The success of the production prevented any reconstructions or revivals of the previous genre from occurring, even to this day.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: A lynching victim named Lee Garnet 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 Next Generations. 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 Mini Series of its own.
  • Historical Domain Character: George Lincoln Rockwell and Malcolm X as interview subjects for Alex Haley. He developed a friendship with the latter and wrote his autobiography.
  • Hope Spot: Noah is brought back, recaptured, just seconds after Lunta comments that he’d have probably gotten away by then if he hasn’t been brought back a prisoner yet.
    • The whole series is kind of built on these, to drive home the sheer bleakness of slavery. To be specific:
      • Kunta Kinte and the rest of the captured Africans try to start a mutiny, only for it to be suppressed, meaning the ones who died did so in vain.
      • Both of Kunta’s escape attempts end with him being captured and mutilated in some way.
      • Kizzy believes Missy Anne is her true friend until she gets sold away, and she never sees her parents again after that.
      • Chicken George insists that Tom Moore wouldn’t buy into the hysteria over Nat Turner, only for him to come running into the cabin with a shotgun.
      • None of the main characters are ever able to buy themselves or run away, so most of them die as slaves. It isn’t until the institution is ended for good that Chicken George and his family are able to be free.
  • {Hypocrite}: The slaveowners justify the practice by claiming that Africans are "simple" and have loose morals, but Dr. Reynolds cheats with his brother's wife and impregnates her, and seemingly everyone knows except Missy Anne and her dad.
  • Ignored Epiphany: In the last episode, the sheriff (along with one other former slave owner who urges the others to change with the times) walks out of the meeting where there is scheming to keep the slaves in de-facto servitude, commenting he’s a man of the law and doesn’t like where this is going. Later (albeit with visible reluctance) he tips off Bent and the others when The Harvey’s present him with evidence of their crimes rather than arrest his friends.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Missy Anne spouts racist rhetoric to Kizzy in total earnestness, and treats her as a dear friend without considering the fact that friends are supposed to be equals. She even compares her to a "nigger baby doll" thinking it's some kind of compliment. Poor Kizzy doesn't realize the shallowness of the relationship until it's too late.
  • Interquel: The Gift takes place during young Kunta's portion of the original miniseries, specifically between the second and third episodes.
  • I Die Free: Multiple slaves, including one who jumps to her death from the slave ship.
  • It's All About Me: A lot of slaves have this attitude, except it’s really not their fault considering they’re just trying to survive a hellish situation. In fact, it’s implied that the masters actually want them to have that attitude so that they’re all too against each other to rise up, like how Fiddler tries to stop Kunta from running so he doesn’t lose his privileges.
  • 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 several sympathetic whites, though, particularly George Johnson and his wife Martha. They are quite a few more sympathetic white characters in The Next Generations (such as Jim Warner, R.S.M. Boyce, Lieutenant Hamilton Ten Eyck and Lyle Pettijohn) given that the times are very slowly changing.
  • 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.
  • Mood Whiplash: In part VI, Chicken George is joking with his family by making fun of a white man who he heard talking about wearing bedsheets to scare black people. As they're laughing, Tom Moore bursts in with a shot gun and threatens to kill all of them because he's paranoid about an uprising.
  • 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.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Simon's mother's name is Queen Victoria Haley.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: In The Gift, Hattie Carraway, who leads a gang that kidnaps free black and captures runaway slaves, is based on Patty Cannon.
  • Obsolete Mentor: The old slave who goes cockfighting with Moore and Chicken George eventually experiences this as George’s expertise grows, to his visible distress.
  • Now What?: After the Emancipation Proclamation, both the former slaves and the former owners have to figure out how to proceed. As Tom points out, freedom tastes good, but they’re all still entirely uneducated and have no money or land, and the landowners have no workers. Luckily for Tom and company, Chicken George buys some land in Tennessee using his union army pay, but unluckily for most other newly freed Blacks, the answer to this question is ''sharecropping''.
  • One-Word Title: The series is based on a novel of the same name, about the family line of its author.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Fiddler's real name is never revealed.
  • 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 and brought to America aboard the Lord Ligonier.
  • Out, Damned Spot!: Captain Thomas 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:
    • Maya Angelou (Nyo Boto) was more than three years younger than her on screen daughter Cicely Tyson (Binta).
    • Leslie Uggams (Kizzy) was three years older than Ben Vereen, who played her son Chicken George. It's necessary though, since she also played a younger version of Kizzy.
    • Dorian Harewood (Simon Haley) is ten months younger than Damon Evans and 19 years younger than James Earl Jones, who both played his character's son Alex Haley. As with Leslie Uggams, he played a younger version of Simon as well.
  • Prison Riot: One happens in the slave ship transporting Kunta Kinte.
  • Public Execution: In The Gift, Cletus Moyer and two rebellious slaves are hanged from a tree on the Parker plantation in full view of all of his slaves.
  • Remember the New Guy?: A rather odd example. In Part VI of the original miniseries, Chicken George and Matilda have two sons, Tom and Lewis. When Chicken George is working out how much it will take to buy freedom for his entire family, he does so for five people: himself, Matilda, Tom, Lewis and his mother Kizzy. However, when Chicken George returns home to the United States after 20 years in Part VII, he has another son named Virgil, who is specifically stated to be the oldest in the family.
  • 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.
  • Sibling Triangle: Dr. William Reynolds has an affair with his brother John's wife. Their daughter Missy Anne is born as a result. John and Missy Anne each believe that he is her father but seemingly everyone else in Spotsylvania County, black and white, has heard the rumor about her true parentage and most of them believe it.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the novel, Kunta's grandmother Yaisa dies when he is a child. In the miniseries, the equivalent character Nyo Boto is still alive when he is captured in 1767.
  • Stealth Pun: "Miss Anne" (along with "Mister Charlie") was a term slaves came up with to refer to owners who were particularly condescending, while still appearing to be respectful of them (making the term itself an example of this trope) so as to avoid being detected by them or the overseers. Indeed, the Missy Anne character spends her time acting precisely in this manner.
  • Stock Subtitle: Roots: The Next Generations.
  • Sweet Home Alabama: Deconstructed. The Reynolds family resembles the Genteel southern family that was so popularly depicted in movies from the 30s and 40s like Gone with the Wind. Those movies featured beautiful countryside scenery, elegant ladies, and enslaved blacks who were happy to serve. This series shows that actually slavery was a horribly brutal system designed to break the wills of enslaved people, and the southern family that (white) audiences would normally relate to is shown to be complicit and in many cases supportive of it.
  • Sympathetic Slave Owner: Sam Harvey is generally a decent man. He clearly views his slaves as property and would prefer to keep them that way. However, he treats them as people and is not mean to them. He basically treats them as employees, rather than pack animals as some of the other masters do. When the slaves are freed after the war, he wants the former slaves to stay on and work for him, except he can't afford to pay them. He offers a sharecropping system to them, which they accept. (He is a rather poor businessman, as he neglects to have anything drawn up legally. This is horrible for the sharecroppers, as he loses his farm and the former slaves are stuck owing a ton that they can't afford to pay. This is taken advantage of by two racists, Senator Arthur J. Justin and Evan Brent, with a grudge against Tom, and by extension, the rest of the black sharecroppers.) As he is leaving the farm, he is referred to as "better than some" by his former slave Matilda, who tells her family and the rest of the ex-slaves to say goodbye and wish him well.
    • Missy-Anne is a deconstruction of this. She believes her and Kizzy to be the best of friends, even though they have an inherently unequal relationship. When Kizzy tried to help Noah escape, Missy Anne turns on her “friend” in an instant, showing that she was ultimately only thinking of herself.
  • 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:
    • Kunta Kinte is played by Levar Burton as a teenager and by John Amos from his mid 20s to middle age.
    • Fanta is played by Ren Woods as a teenager and by Beverly Todd in her mid 20s.
    • Missy Anne Reynolds is played by Tracey Gold as a child and by Sandy Duncan as an adult.
    • Tom Harvey is played by an uncredited actor as a child and by Georg Stanford Brown as an adult.
    • Lewis Harvey is played by an uncredited actor as a child and by Hilly Hicks as an adult.
    • Cynthia Harvey Palmer is played by Cynthia Sye as a child, by Bever-Leigh Banfield from her mid 20s to middle age and by Beah Richards as an elderly woman.
    • Alex Haley is played by Kristoff St. John as a child, by Damon Evans from his teens to his late 20s and by James Earl Jones from his late 30s to mid 40s.
  • Time Skip: Occasionally. For example, Part Two of the original miniseries ends with LeVar Burton's young Kunta nearly being whipped to death in 1767. The next episode opens with John Amos playing the older Kunta nine years later.
    • The second to last episode of The Next Generations ends with Alex Haley's wife leaving him. The next episode is also ten years later—and just like his ancestor, he's being with him being played by a new actor.
  • Token Minority: Alex and his soon-to-be girlfriend Odile Richards joke about them being this at a party where they are indeed the only black guests. Odile says that Bobby Short, who is playing the piano, does not count as he is the hired help.
  • 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.