Roots wasn’t the first mini-series to hit TV screens when it first aired in January 1977, and it also wasn’t the one that established the format as a success. Rich Man, Poor Man emerged almost a year earlier when it debuted in February 1976, and it was a very successful program.
However, Roots remains the pinnacle of TV mini-series. Exactly a quarter century after it first appeared, the nearly ten-hour program continues to be regarded as one of the most memorable and important events of TV history, and this new special edition DVD release should help folks remember what an impact it had.
Roots offers no overall plot, as it covers many years in the lives of one family. We begin in Africa circa 1750 as Binta (Cicely Tyson) - the wife of Omoru (Thalmus Rasulala) - gives birth to their first child. Named Kunta Kinte, the program quickly leaps forward to 1765 where we start on a dual storyline. We see events in Annapolis Maryland, where ship captain Thomas Davies (Ed Asner) reluctantly takes charge of slaving vessel the Lord Ligonier. Along with crude first mate Slater (Ralph Waite) he heads toward Gambia where he’ll pick up a load of 170 newly-enslaved Africans.
While these events unfold, we meet 15-year-old Kunta (LeVar Burton) and see his family interactions. The main focus here revolves around his “Manhood Training”; he and the other boys of the same age get trundled off into the wild to learn all the important aspects of being a Mandinka warrior. Kunta excels and soon returns to his village ready to take his place as a young man.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be. While he sought a piece of wood to make a drum for his younger brother, slavers captured Kunta and placed him on the Lord Ligonier for the long voyage to America and servitude. There he meets up with one of his “Manhood Trainers” - the daunting and powerful Wrestler (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) - and they eventually attempt to stage a revolt against their shipboard oppressors.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t succeed, and Kunta ultimately ends up in the possession of farmer John Reynolds (Lorne Greene). At that time, Reynolds’ trusted slave Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.) gets the job to tame the proud African who refuses to acknowledge his new slave name of Toby and who also plots to escape.
I’d better not cover the entire tale in such detail or I’ll never finish this review, but this description offers a glimpse of where Roots will go. Essentially it follows the first four generations of author Alex Haley’s family in America. We begin with Kunta and follow him into adulthood; at that stage, John Amos plays the character. He marries Bell (Madge Sinclair), and we eventually watch his daughter Kizzy (Leslie Uggams), her son Chicken George (Ben Vereen), and finally his boy Tom (Georg Stanford Brown). Starting with Kunta’s birth in 1750, the story goes over about 120 years as we finally conclude with the family’s freedom after the end of the Civil War. (A short coda follows the “roots” up through Haley, but those elements offer little more than a quick recap; they’d get further exploration a few years later in Roots: The Next Generations. Anyone who expects me to exploit the connection between LeVar Burton and the title of the sequel will leave disappointed - too easy!)
Those who weren’t around when Roots first aired can’t fathom what a huge hit it was. Since the TV universe is now so fragmented, we’ll likely never see another event that plops so many fannies in front of one program; there are simply too many choices now, as opposed to the period during which the three networks monopolized things. I’m all for the additional options, but I must admit it’s kind of sad that we don’t have this form of unifying program anymore; there’s really nothing that becomes quite such a national event.
But Roots was an absolute phenomenon when it aired. It set a series of ratings records for the eight nights it aired, and it remains one of the most-watched programs in history. It also sparked a fad related to family trees and discovering your own “roots”. Me, I took one look at my Dad and said, “why bother?”
Many ambitious programs from the Seventies don’t hold up very well today, but that fate hasn’t befallen Roots. While the show has its ups and downs, it remains a rather compelling experience. For me, the best segments took place during episodes one and two. Director David Greene nicely intercuts between the threat implied by the journey of the Lord Ligonier and the growth of young Kunta, and those pieces also include some of the series’ best acting. Burton is absolutely scintillating as Kunta, while Asner maintains a good level of balance for Davies.
The story still works well once Kunta reaches America and becomes a slave, largely due to the chemistry between Burton and Gossett. They fed off of each other nicely and helped make the relatively small part of Fiddler much more memorable than otherwise might have occurred.
The series goes downhill somewhat when we lose Burton and gain Amos. Even though Amos plays the adult Kunta/Toby, the character’s still supposed to be quite young when we first meet the new actor; he’s alleged to be in his mid-twenties at that time. Then in his mid-thirties, Amos simply can’t pull off mid-twenties, and some of these scenes lose their impact due to this leap of logic.
Still, the sequences aren’t bad; they just fall short of the series’ earlier highs. Amos offers much better acting once he gets closer to his real age, and he’s not the only one with that problem. Uggams first must play Kizzy as a teenager, and she looks absurd at that point; she feigns youthful exuberance and innocence, but the then-33-year-old actress just appears silly. She offers much stronger work once Kizzy matures; Uggams brings appropriate depth and power to those segments.
More successful as a youngster are Ben Vereen and Georg Stanford Brown. Granted, they don’t have the same disadvantages as Amos and Uggams. In addition to the inappropriateness of his casting as a 20-something, Amos suffered due to comparisons with Burton, and it was hard to reconcile the two personalities at times. Uggams didn’t have that problem, but she got stuck with extended screentime as a teen; Vereen and Brown were allowed to zoom into adulthood much more quickly.
Despite some quibbles, the acting in Roots largely seems quite good, especially considering the résumés offered by many of the performers. Roots includes an inordinate amount of TV folks, and many came from the world of sitcoms. Asner, Amos, Robert Reed, John Schuck, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs all had strong backgrounds in comedic fare, and many of the others mainly worked in musical variety settings; I don’t think many saw Vereen, Sandy Duncan or Burl Ives as the usual suspects for this kind of fare.
On the surface, the casting seems odd, but at least in regard to the white performers, I think it was brilliant. The actors tend towards folks with previously positive character images. Robert “Mike Brady” Reed, Ed “Lou Grant” Asner, Ralph “Pa Walton” Waite, Lorne “Ben Cartwright” Greene, along with other sunny white people like Burl Ives, Duncan and Gary Collins, made it a more daring enterprise. The presence of these performers created a more challenging setting, as they subconsciously led the audience to see the insidiousness of slavery; even nice people like these bought into it. It was a masterstroke to put so many trusted actors in such unpleasant parts.
Roots was literally a once in a lifetime event. While a screening on DVD lacks the sizzle associated with the original broadcast, the program continues to hold up well after a quarter of a century. Roots offers a rich and memorable look at history through the eyes of one family, and it’s a terrific experience.
Roots appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these DVDs; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Discs one and two are double-sided, single-layered affairs, while DVD three is a DVD-14, which means one side is single-layered while episode six comes on a dual-layered platter. While the program definitely showed its age at times, for the most part I thought Roots provided a fairly satisfying visual experience.
Sharpness generally seemed solid. Some minor softness interfered at times, but those moments appeared infrequent. As a whole, the program looked nicely delineated and well defined. I saw few examples of moiré effects or jagged edges, and the presentation seemed to lack evidence of edge enhancement.
Not surprisingly, source flaws caused the most significant concerns. These were erratic, however. Substantial portions of Roots passed without incident and looked quite clean and fresh. On other occasions, though, a mix of defects marred the presentation. At various times, I saw examples of grit, speckles, grain, nicks, and spots. Grain was probably the most prevalent culprit, but a mix of other light debris also appeared. All in all, I really did think that the issues remained relatively minor, but the flaws occurred nonetheless.
Colors also were somewhat erratic, but they generally came across as reasonably bright and accurate. At times the hues appeared somewhat flat or faded, but those occasions didn’t occur frequently. For the most part, the tones seemed very solid and vibrant. Black levels varied a little but they usually stayed nicely deep and dense, while shadow detail showed moderately less consistency. Some low-light shots - such as those in the hold of the Lord Ligonier - appeared very clear and appropriately defined, but others seemed too opaque and thick. The former situation dominated, however, and these concerns didn’t last long. Ultimately, Roots offered a generally positive image.
Also relatively strong was the monaural soundtrack of Roots. Audio quality seemed a little thin at times, but the mix usually worked fine. Dialogue appeared reasonably natural, though speech tended to be somewhat flat on occasion. Still, I heard no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess, and the lines always appeared distinct. Effects lacked much range or vividness, but they seemed to represent the elements acceptably well, and they showed no distortion or other problems in that domain. Music was similarly drab and lifeless, though the score did present some modest bass response at times. Overall, the soundtrack of Roots did nothing to elevate the material, but it didn’t harm it either.
This “25th Anniversary Edition” of Roots packs a few supplements, but only one of any real significance. That’s the audio commentary that spans the entire almost-10-hour length of the production. Obviously, this isn’t a running affair. Really, only one participant shows up through the entire program: executive producer David L. Wolper appears on all six sides of the set. In addition, all of the participants return at the end of episode six to provide closing remarks and thanks.
Otherwise, folks come and go dependent on the content for this edited track. In addition to Wolper, we hear from directors David Greene, John Erman and Marvin Chomsky, writer William Blinn, production designer Jan Scott, casting director Lynn Stalmaster, and actors LeVar Burton, Edward Asner, Cicely Tyson, John Amos, Beverly Todd, Gary Collins, Sandy Duncan, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, John Schuck, Leslie Uggams, Georg Stanford Brown, and Lynne Moody. At least some of the participants actually watched parts of Roots while they spoke; during Uggams’ and Moody’s bits, it was clear that they had the show running, so they allowed us to get some screen-specific material. However, it seems obvious that most of the comments come from interviews and the speakers didn’t have direct access to the program.
Not that I regard this as a bad thing, for the Roots commentary offers a wealth of information. The participants touch on a slew of topics. We learn of the project’s origins as a film as well as many production challenges and the ways it affected the different folks. We hear about the influence on various careers and what it was like to work with so many varied people; we find a particular emphasis on impressions of Alex Haley. We get perspectives on the Roots legacy and its overwhelming success at the time and also get info on about a million other subjects.
Since Roots runs almost 10 hours, that’s a lot of time to fill. For the most part, the commentary does so well, as it covers the majority of the running time. Actually, the first three and the last two episodes pass with very few empty spaces, but the fourth one runs into more problems in that regard; quite a lot of side four lacks any audio material.
In addition, the commentary suffers from the notable absence of a few key players. Obviously, I don’t mean those who’ve passed on, but some folks still among the living didn’t show up during the track. Most significantly missed are Lou Gossett and Ben Vereen, since they enjoyed the most prominent roles among the missing. (I’ll forgive the absent O.J. Simpson, since I know he’s still busy searching for the real killer.)
Nonetheless, I’m nitpicking to a degree. The inclusion of an audio commentary on such a long program came as a pleasant surprise, and for the most part, the quality of this track was very good. Some sags occurred, but that was virtually inevitable. Overall, I really enjoyed this discussion of Roots.
One can take in the commentary as an audio-only piece or one can also check out the Video Inserts. That material appears in two ways. You can view the show normally, and when some video clips appear, a Roots logo will pop up onscreen. Hit “enter” on your remote and you’ll then see a snippet of the video commentary.
In addition, the DVDs offer Video Highlights. These compile interview snippets in one area and make it easier to access that material. Unfortunately, the “Video Highlights” domains don’t include all of the clips available during the show, so to see each one of them, you’ll have to sit through the program. That seems pointless; I don’t know why they didn’t just provide all of them via the separate option. Whatever the case may be, the video segments are marginally interesting, but I don’t see much point in those kinds of “talking head” shots; I’m perfectly happy to go with the audio-only rendition.
On Side Six of the set, we find some additional extras. A Roots Family Tree simply lists the various factions and connects them together on a chart; a more extensive version of this appears in the DVD-ROM area detailed soon. More significant is Remembering Roots, a new collection of interviews about the project.
Anyone who expects this to be a full-fledged documentary will leave disappointed. Instead, it’s really just a collection of outtakes from the interview sessions for the audio commentary. The 18-minute and 45-second piece connects these snippets under vague themes and essentially gives us a condensed version of the commentary. A little of the material repeats between the two, but mostly “Remembering” includes exclusive footage. It seems somewhat redundant after almost 10 hours of commentary, but it’s got enough useful information to merit a look. I about gagged when Wolper read a terrible poem about Roots, though.
In addition, the packaging for Roots touts some DVD-ROM Features available on Side Six. It discusses the Interactive Roots Family Tree. This piece requires Internet access, unfortunately, which makes it something of a nuisance to run. It tended to move slowly on my machine, and I’m not sure why the content couldn’t simply have been included on the DVD itself; from what I could tell, this section basically just listed the different folks, gave us a little text, and occasionally showed pictures of the actors who portrayed them. Some short video montages accompany the listings for the many of the significant characters such as Chicken George and Kizzy. While it’s clearly more expansive than the simple chart found on the main DVD, it still doesn’t offer much information. Frankly, it’s pretty useless and uninteresting.
In addition to the “Family Tree”, Roots includes a mix of Weblinks. We get connections to an official website, WB “special events”, “latest DVDs”, “sign up for Movie Mail” and WB Online. Note that I ran into some problems getting these to run at times. They worked at times but flopped on others.
We’ll likely never see a TV phenomenon like Roots again, but since we can still watch the original on DVD, that’s fine with me! The show took the country by storm and remains the mini-series against which all others must be compared. After 25 years, it continues to provide a rich and winning program that communicates the pain suffered by slaves but that never resorts to the cheap theatrics of weaker pieces like Amistad. The DVD provides aging but generally positive picture and sound as well as a roster of extras highlighted by a pretty compelling audio commentary. With a list price of nearly $60, Roots seems a little expensive, but I can’t quibble with the quality of the production.