Monday, February 13, 2012


(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

Number 9 in our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen, is Roots.  All right, maybe you have seen this one. I watched it with my college journalism gang when it was first broadcast. The show made television history for many reasons. It was one of the first miniseries and ABC took a tremendous gamble by pre-empting a week of prime time programming to show Roots every night. The gamble paid off: the finale remains the third-highest rated U.S. television program ever broadcast and Roots received 36 Emmy Award nominations, winning nine. It spawned two sequels: the miniseries Roots: The Next Generations and a Christmas movie, Roots: The Gift. It also launched an American obsession with genealogy. The series was notable for tackling a controversial issue, slavery and its associated racism, and was the first TV series to feature a predominantly black cast, propelling several black actors to fame.

Roots is a generational saga, telling the story of the African youth Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) — who is captured by other Africans, sold to slavers, and taken to America in chains — and his descendents. Kinte is sold to a plantation owner and, like a caged lion, yearns for his lost freedom. He later marries a slave, Belle, and fathers a daughter, Kizzie (Leslie Uggams). The girl is befriended by the daughter of the plantation owner’s wife, who teaches her to read and write. Kizzie is sold to a plantation in North Carolina and raped by its owner. She gives birth to a child who grows up to be known as “Chicken” George (Ben Vereen) because of his skill as a cockfighter. The series ends with George telling his grandson about his own grandfather, the African Kunta Kinte.

It’s a captivating story portrayed by a top-notch cast. My only criticism is it presents a rather simplistic view of a complex period in American history, leaving the impression all white people were vile and evil. The whites are all rapists and sadists; there are no kind or humane slave owners (even though half the nation’s population was composed of slave states) and the blacks (with the exception of the Africans who sold Kunta Kinte into slavery) are all portrayed as virtuous victims, befitting descendents of the “noble savage”.  After a few hours of viewing, you might well find yourself asking, as did Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah, if even 10 righteous (white) men existed in this time and place. The noble savage motif was often used as a literary device to convey the notion men are essentially good in a state of nature, such as the African jungle (Kunta Kinte) or the western plains (American Indians) compared to the corrupt men of the civilized world. It is, of course, an idealistic and romanticized fiction. There have always been good and bad men in civilized cultures, just as good and evil individuals have always existed in so-called uncivilized societies. I’m sure there were black sadists and rapists and decent white folks, but apparently not in Roots. Of course, the producers were going for controversy and shock value at the time, and they achieved it.

Overall, Roots is an excellent drama, a compelling story, and a showcase for many talented black actors who had few venues available in the 1970s.  Below, you'll find links to the show's listings at the Internet Movie Database,, an episode guide, a clip from the series hosted on YouTube, and a link to purchase the DVDs on Amazon. In the clip I've selected, Kinte has been captured after his escape. He still proudly clings to his name, Kunta Kinte, the last relic of his former freedom. The plantation overseer whips him, determined to break his spirit by forcing him to accept “Toby” as his slave name.

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