1 9 7 7 – 1 9 7 8 (USA)
4 x 120 minute episodes
4 x 60 minute episodes
1 9 7 9 – 1 9 8 1 (USA)
Suddenly, over eight consecutive nights in January 1977, there was Roots, a series about a black man’s search for his origins – a quest that took him back through American slavery to ancestors in a remote West African village.
But not only blacks were watching. The whole of the USA was enthralled by Alex Haley’s story about the slave Kunta Kinte, his daughter Kizzy, her son Chicken George, and so on through four generations.
The series chronicled the 100-year history of Kunta Kinte’s family, from capture in Africa by slave traders around 1750, to eventual emancipation in post-Civil War America.
The story began in 1750 in the Mandinka village of Jufareh in The Gambia, West Africa, with the birth of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) to Binta (Cicely Tyson) and Omoro (Thalmus Rasula).
Kunta grew up free and happy until, at the age of 17, he was taken prisoner by white slave catchers and shipped to America on a vessel commanded by the conscience-stricken Captain Davies (Edward Asner) and his cruel third mate, Slater (Ralph Waite).
Kunta (played by John Amos as an adult) – being forced to adopt the new name of Toby by his new masters on a Tennessee plantation – remained rebellious for the rest of his life, making several attempts to escape and eventually losing a foot in the process.
Then his daughter, Kizzy (Leslie Uggams), was born. She grew to womanhood and bore a son (after she was raped by her white owner), later to be named Chicken George (Ben Vereen), because he was skilled in the art of training fighting cocks.
Chicken George was sent into servitude in England in the 1820s, as rumours of slave rebellions swept the American South. Thirty years later he returned, an old but free man, only to find America on the brink of Civil War.
George’s son, Tom Harvey (Georg Stanford Brown), a plantation blacksmith, was recruited into the army, but after emancipation found that freedom meant little in a land of hooded nightriders and economic exploitation.
As the series ended, Tom – the great-grandson of Kunta Kinte – struck out to start a new life in Tennessee, and sow the roots for a better life for his free descendants.
Over the course of the saga, viewers saw brutal whippings and many agonising moments, rapes, the forced separations of families, slave auctions . . . but through it all, Roots compelled America to face its chequered past. It was hardly a serious history of slave trading, but the emotional charge of a monstrous injustice was still there.
It was a landmark TV mini-series that towered over the decade, with 130 million viewers – over half of the population of the USA – tuned in to the last episode. In Britain, around 19 million viewers also became hooked on what turned out to be a decent yarn despite its comically unlikely sets of African villages – with manicured lawns and dwellings straight out of an Ideal Hut exhibition.
Two years after Roots made television history, the sequel Roots: The Next Generation picked up the story once again, this time in 1882 by which time Tom Harvey, great-grandson of Kunta Kinte, had established a marginal existence as a blacksmith in Henning, Tennessee.
Relations between the races were strained, and old prejudices survived. Tom forbade his daughter’s marriage to a light-skinned black man because he was “too white”, and town patriarch Colonel Warner (Henry Fonda) disowned his own son Jim (Richard Thomas) when he dared to marry a black schoolteacher.
Before long, “literacy tests” were being used to deny blacks their recently won right to vote, and “lynch law” had reappeared.
Tom’s younger daughter, Cynthia (Bever-Leigh Banfield), married a hardworking young man named Will Palmer (Stan Shaw), who, despite the oppression, had risen to ownership of the local lumberyard.
In time Will would succeed Tom as leader of the local black community as Ku Klux Klan terror swept the South. Will and Cynthia’s daughter, Bertha (Irene Cara), became the first descendant of Kunta Kinte to enter college. There, in 1912, she met ambitious young Simon Haley (Dorian Harewood), son of a sharecropper, whose education was being sponsored by a philanthropic white man.
After serving in a segregated combat unit during World War I, Simon returned to wed Bertha and begin teaching agriculture at a black college in Alabama. While Simon was organising farmers during the New Deal, his son, Alex (Christoff St. John as a child and Damon Evans as a young man), soaked up family lore from the older generation.
As World War II approached, Alex enlisted in the Coast Guard, where he spent the next 20 years. When he retired in 1960 (now played by James Earl Jones) he turned to writing, interviewing such national figures as black activist Malcolm X (Al Freeman Jr), whose ‘autobiography’ he helped write, and American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell (Marlon Brando) – who held a gun on him throughout their conversation.
Then a visit to his boyhood home of Henning reignited his interest in his family’s past, all the way back to the ‘Old African’ Kunta Kinte, and started him on a journey to Africa to begin his greatest work.
Roots: The Next Generation was repeated as a weekly series from May to July 1981.
LeVar Burton (boy)
John Amos (man)
O. J. Simpson
Ren Woods (1)
Beverly Todd (2)
Third Mate Slater
Louis Gossett Jr
Dr William Reynolds
Raymond St. Jacques
Sir Eric Russell
Georg Stanford Brown
Ol’ George Johnson
Cynthia Harvey Palmer
Cynthia Harvey Palmer (old)
Olivia de Havilland
Bertha Palmer Haley
Chicken George Moore
Roger E. Mosley
Big Slew Johnson
Dr Horace Huguley
Alex Haley (child)
Christoff St. John
Alex Haley (young man)
Alex Haley (adult)
James Earl Jones
Nan Branch Haley
Al Freeman Jr
George Lincoln Rockwell