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Friday, February 01, 2013

Roots: The Saga of an American Family

I always like trying new ideas for this blog in order to get more of a wider audience.  Some ideas that I have come up with have been incredibly successful and piqued people’s interests.  And, there are a few ideas that have admittedly flopped.  But that’s the fun of trying new things.  You learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t.

I’ll admit that the thought never crossed my mind to devote an entire month to a specific topic when I first began this blog.  I had expected to do theme days, and occasionally, I’ve tried my hand at a few theme weeks (September Switcheroo in September 2011, Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This Week in April 2012), but the closest that I ever came to an entire theme month was two months ago in December 2012, when the first twenty-five days of the month were transformed into an advent calendar.

Well, this month, I have decided to try my hand at another theme month.  For the next twenty-eight days, each blog entry will have a common thread linking them all together, and at the end of February, I hope to have shared a lot of information with all of you in regards to a very special month.

Did you know that February is officially recognized as Black History Month?  In Canada and the United States, the month of February is reserved for teaching people about the historical events, discoveries, and triumphs that were achieved by people of the African diaspora.  Black History Month is also recognized in the United Kingdom, only they celebrate it during the month of October.

The origins of Black History Month date back to 1926, when a man by the name of Carter G. Woodson teamed up with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to create the precursor to Black History Month, “Negro History Week”.  It took place during the second week of February because it always passed through the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  Woodson had created the week-long event in hopes that one day it would be eliminated as black history would be incorporated into the regular curriculum. 

It’s interesting to note that when Negro History Week was made official, it was met with a lot of enthusiasm from students, teachers, and progressive white people.  It sparked a renewed interest in history classes, and at high schools all across the United States, black history clubs were organized as extracurricular activities.  It became so popular that the decision was made in 1976 to expand the Black History Week to cover the entire month of February, which has remained in place ever since.

So, I thought to myself that if history classes and textbooks can celebrate Black History Month, why not A Pop Culture Addict’s Guide To Life?

From February 1 – 28, 2013, this blog will be celebrating Black History Month, as every single topic will feature some sort of reference to the contributions and inventions created by African-American citizens (and African-Canadian, African-European, etc).  But, don’t you worry, fellow pop culture addicts...there will still be the references to movies, music, and television that you all grew up with!  Even the Thursday Diary entries will have something to do with Black History Month...even though at this time, I’m trying to figure out a way to make that happen. 

So, how do I kick off such an event?  Well, today happens to be Friday, which means that a television show will be featured.  But, because it’s the beginning of a month-long event, why not begin with a bang?  Why don’t I start off with a television miniseries that ran for eight consecutive days in the winter of 1977?  Why don’t I talk about a miniseries that had huge Hollywood stars signed on to star in at least one of the episodes of the series?  A miniseries that was nominated for thirty-six Emmy Awards, winning nine?  A miniseries in which all eight episodes ranked within the Top 100 American television episodes of ALL TIME?

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure that you’ll all agree that I can’t kick off Black History Month without talking about the 1977 miniseries “Roots”.  Based off of the novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” by Alex Haley, the miniseries aired nightly between January 23 and January 30, 1977 on ABC, and the conclusion of the series remains the third highest-rated American program in the history of television (just falling behind Dallas’ “Who Shot J.R.?” episode and the series finale of “M*A*S*H” – sporting events like the Super Bowl aside, that is.)

The eight-part miniseries boasted a “Who’s Who” list of names.  The miniseries was the breakout performance of LeVar Burton, who portrayed the younger version of Kunta Kinte, and also featured a pre-Growing Pains Tracey Gold in the role of Young Missy Reynolds.  But just listen to some of the other names associated with the project.  You had Ben Vereen, Vic Morrow, John Amos, Lorne Greene, Ed Asner, Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Reed, Sandy Duncan, Leslie Uggams, Georg Stanford Brown, Lloyd Bridges, Carolyn Jones, Cicely Tyson, Ralph Waite, Richard Roundtree, Roxie Roker, Maya Angelou, Burl Ives, Todd Bridges, and Yvonne De Carlo all having huge parts, secondary roles, or at the very least a cameo appearance.  It’s hard to deny that much star power having an impact on the overall success of the miniseries.

However, the success of Roots was not solely the casting (although each member of the cast acted their socks off).  It was the story.  And, for many people who watched the miniseries thirty-six years ago (and for people who have since watched it on the DVD release in 2002 for its twenty-fifth anniversary).

“Roots” is set over a period of one hundred and twenty years (1750 – 1870), and the majority of the movie deals with the hardships and ugliness that was slavery.

I’ll say this.  After watching the entire series, it’s absolutely horrifying to have watched what black slaves experienced during that time period.  It certainly makes one realize that the whole world has come a long way when it comes to how we treat other people (and yet in some places, we clearly still have a long way to go yet).  And, although some people have some issues with the actual historical accuracy of the miniseries (and book for that matter), the author of the book, Alex Haley claimed that “Roots” was based on his own family’s history, which began with Kunta Kinte, a descendent of Haley from a span of seven generations apart.

I won’t really go into too much plot detail here (because no amount of words that I could say can give the horrifying scenes and the small victories that each of the main characters experience in a world of slavery and fear).  But, I can offer you a little bit of what to expect (along with a couple of video clips).

The main character for the first arc of the series is obviously Kunta Kinte (played by both LeVar Burton and John Amos), and the story begins when he is captured and sold to a slave trader.  He spends the next three months on a ship bound for Colonial America where he is purchased by John Reynolds (Lorne Greene), a plantation owner from Spotsylvania County, Virginia.  He also gives Kunta a new name, Toby.  Reynolds assigns an older slave, Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.) to teach him English, and to train him for his new job as a chattel slave.  Of course, this was of little comfort to Kunta, who just wanted to escape and go back home to Africa.  Unfortunately, each time he tries to escape, he ends up getting caught.  To make matters worse, Kunta refuses to change his name, as he wishes to preserve his heritage, and this prompts the scene to shift to this disturbing scene.  You may watch it below, but I must warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Kunta and Fiddler stay on the property as property of John Reynolds until Kunta reaches adulthood.  From there, they become the property of John’s brother, Dr. William Reynolds (Robert Reed), and once more, Kunta tries again to escape.  This time, the punishment is severe, as Kunta ends up getting nearly his whole right foot amputated, in order to prevent him from trying to escape again.

At this point, Kunta decides to give up the fight for freedom and makes the decision to continue serving as a slave.  Fortunately, not all is bleak.  He ends up falling in love with the cook of Dr. Reynolds’ household, Belle, and they end up getting married.

But if you think the story ends there, think again.  The tale picks up with the story of Belle and Kunta’s daughter, Kizzy.  In fact, that’s where “Roots” ends up getting its name.  The story traces through several generations of family beginning with Kunta Kinte and passing through Kizzy, Kizzy’s son, George, and George’s sons, Tom and Lewis.  It’s a beautifully told story, and it keeps the audience captivated from beginning until end.  Certainly, there are some hard scenes to watch in the miniseries, and of course there are some really terrifying and grotesque scenes that will absolutely break your heart...but there are also some moments that are heartwarming.  The wedding day of Belle and Kunta, for example. Or, Kizzy being taught how to read and write by Missy Anne Reynolds (well, before Missy Anne betrays her, that is).  Or, “Chicken George” using the sport of cockfighting to win a prize more valuable than money.

Really, I could go on and on about this miniseries, but I don’t want to spoil the whole thing for you.  Believe me, I could not begin to use enough words to justify how powerful and moving this entire miniseries is.  So, go out and watch it.  You won’t regret it.

Now, to cap off this look back on “Roots”, I thought that I’d post a little bit of trivia about this miniseries.  You already know that it was a ratings powerhouse, that it was LeVar Burton’s first starring role, and that it won nine Emmy Awards, as well as a Peabody Award.

But did you also know that...

...two sequels to “Roots” were produced?  One was made in 1979 (Roots: The Next Generations), and the other one was made in 1988 (Roots:  The Gift).

...the actor playing Tom (Georg Stanford Brown) was three years OLDER than his on-screen father, George (Ben Vereen)?

...that author Harold Courlander launched a lawsuit against Roots author Alex Haley for plagiarizing events that took place in his own novel “The African”?  And that Courlander ended up winning a settlement of $650,000 out of court?

...only two actors from “Roots” (Georg Stanford Brown and Lynne Moody) reprised their roles in the 1979 sequel?

...Sandy Duncan admitted in an interview where Oprah Winfrey talked to the cast of "Roots" thirty-five years after the miniseries aired, that she is still unable to sit through the whole twelve-hour miniseries?  I suppose it didn't help matters much that by her final appearance, she ended up becoming one of the most hated characters in the whole show...

...two of the actors from “Roots” (LeVar Burton and Louis Gossett Jr.) reprised their roles in the 1988 film “Roots:  The Gift”? ABC executive described the success of “Roots” by stating that “a third of America was snowed in, a third of America was black, and a third of America watches ABC anyway”?

...Vic Morrow is the only cast member to appear in more than three episodes of the miniseries (he appears in four of the eight)?

...Quincy Jones and Gerald Fried composed the musical score for the first episode of the miniseries?

...the total budget for the miniseries was $6.6 million? estimated 36 million households watched the series finale?

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