To watch the ABC miniseries Roots 30 years after its initial broadcast is to be moved, impressed, and dismayed. Moved because this six-part, 12-hour production tells stories of American slavery with actors (then newcomer LeVar Burton, stalwarts like John Amos, Ben Vereen, and Louis Gossett Jr.) who portrayed agony with subtle strength. Impressed because in bringing author Alex Haley’s best-selling book to the small screen, the producers took chances with scenes of violence and uses of harsh language that would probably not be permitted on prime-time TV today. And dismayed because too few of the black actors Roots brought to instant prominence continued to find equally serious work — plus, those now-startling artistic chances I just mentioned suggest that we’ve gone backward, not forward, in freedom of expression.
Roots follows the story of a West African youth, Kunta Kinte (Burton), captured and sold into American slavery in the 18th-century South. He is brutalized — whipped and stripped of his African identity, renamed ”Toby” — but he survives. The adult Kunta Kinte (Amos) marries; his daughter, Kizzy (singer-actress Leslie Uggams), eventually bears a son, known as Chicken George (Vereen). In the concluding moments, Kunta Kinte’s great-grandson, Tom (Georg Stanford Brown), joins the Union Army and is ultimately emancipated.
Roots’ initial impact seemed enormous. As the DVD set’s numerous featurettes and commentaries tell us, it was unprecedented for a miniseries with such a large black cast to garner the huge ratings Roots did, over the course of eight consecutive nights (itself a programming innovation). Much of Roots now seems melodramatic and overwrought. But, boy, if any producer today — especially a white one like executive producer David L. Wolper — tried to depict nudity and rape, or to have characters repeatedly use the N-word, all in the name of realism, he or she would probably become an instant pariah. How much more unsophisticated we’ve become, unwilling to distinguish between well-intentioned moralizing (which Roots did) and exploitation (which it didn’t do).
There’s not much in the new material included with this four-disc edition that cannot be found on the 25th-anniversary set, with one big exception: a fascinating mini-doc called ”Crossing Over: How Roots Captivated an Entire Nation.” Here, Haley’s own son, William, criticizes Roots for not being ”culturally competent” or ”as hard-hitting as it could have been.” Wolper says sorrowfully that, proud as he is of his effort, he doesn’t think Roots changed much in our society or improved the plight of black actors seeking worthy roles. Roots endures as a reminder of challenges thrown down, and of how many more remain.