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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 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 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 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.
  • Interquel: The Gift takes place during young Kunta's portion of the original miniseries, specifically between the second and third episodes.
  • Large Ham: George "Chicken George" Moore.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Given that the two Mini Series cover seven generations of Kunta Kinte's family and more than 200 years, this trope naturally comes into play.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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:
    • 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.
  • 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.


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