THE ROOTS PHENOMENA

If the history of blacks in American television is replete with instances of exclusion, bias, and discrimination, it seems paradoxical that the most popular programs in the history of the medium were concerned with the African-American experience. It is also interesting to remember that while the small number of blacks in TV usually have been stereotyped as comedians and musical entertainers, for eight evenings in 1977 and seven nights in 1979, it was black dramatic actors who held American viewers spellbound with their realization of Alex Haley's best-selling family autobiography Roots.

The original twelve-hour Roots (January 23-30, 1977) and its fourteen-hour sequel, Roots: The Next Generations (February 18-23 and 25, 1979), were the most widely viewed miniseries in TV history. Roots averaged a rating of 45 and a 66 share, and its sequel series averaged 30.1 and 45. (Not until September 1980 was this record broken when Shogun became the second most widely viewed miniseries in American television history.) An estimated 140 million viewers saw all or part of Roots, and 110 million watched at least part of Roots: The Next Generations. As noted in figure 17.1, these ABC Novel for Television productions accounted for the two most widely viewed network weeks in TV through 1979.

RankWeek
Ending
ProgramRatingShare
1Jan.30,1977Roots35.552
2Feb. 25, 1979Roots:
The Next Generations
27.041
3Aug. 1, 1976Summer Olympics
(Montreal)
26.049
4Sept. 17, 1978ABC Premiere Week25.9
Oct. 15, 1978World Series25.9

In Roots, audiences encountered African-American history in a remarkable context. Tracing the story of a black family over two and one-half centuries, the miniseries presented pictures of the destruction of normal, loving African families and the enslavement and/or murder of family members. Here were the dehumanizing experiences of kidnapped Africans being shipped to servitude in the American colonies; of enforced illiteracy to ensure subjugation; of abuses and brutality against recalcitrant slaves. But viewers also found the constant theme of the survival of human dignity, the will to maintain self-esteem by whatever means practical. In Haley's progenitors, this inner strength took many forms, from Kunta Kinte's refusal to recognize his new slave name,"Toby," to Alex Haley's obstinate desire to become a writer.

The Roots dramas delivered powerful human emotions in outstanding theatrical performances. As Kunta Kinte, "the old African" who endowed his posterity with the indomitable sense of self-worth and liberty, LeVar Burton and John Amos presented the strongest black character ever realized on American television. In her role as Kizzy, daughter of Kunta Kinte, Leslie Uggams sensitively portrayed a slave woman eager for learning, loving and loyal to family and tradition, yet victimized by white prejudice and lust.

Ben Vereen's characterization of Chicken George, the bastard offspring of Kizzy and her white master, added another dimension of the African-American legacy. Now audiences met the slave of special talent whose expertise in the white man's vices—in this case cockfighting—allowed him to enjoy fame and a degree of freedom unknown to other blacks, but still left him bereft of real equality or control over his own life.

Tom Murray, the son of Chicken George—and great-grandson of "the old African"—was a strong, rational man experiencing the last years of slavery in the South, and the first duplicitous decades of emancipation following the Civil War. As enacted by Georg Stanford Brown, Tom the blacksmith faced white-robed vigilantes and smartly dressed white patricians, all intent upon thwarting black freedom. With dignified courage and controlled anger, he encountered the loss of his voting rights and the establishment of a pattern of Jim Crow laws that legalized his inequality.

Tom Murray possessed, however, an instinct to survive, an ability to recognize reality and adapt. But his survival was never achieved with the loss of self-esteem. This was an inherited trait, and a tradition realized in one way or another by ensuing generations—through strong women and proud men—until it culminated in James Earl Jones' portrayal of Alex Haley as he strode into a Gambian village to discover his ancestral roots and mark the spot from which Kunta Kinte had been abducted 250 years earlier.

In many ways Roots and Roots: The Next Generations were monumental productions. They offered more than just their story lines for television executives to ponder. Black actors in the series demonstrated impressive dramatic skills. Two black cast members—Louis Gossett, Jr., who played the old pragmatic slave, Fiddler, and Olivia Cole, who portrayed Chicken George's durable wife Mathilda—received Emmy awards for their performances. In a medium long used to projecting African Americans as singers, dancers, musicians, athletes, and comics, it was ironic that the largest audiences in TV history now approved the dramatic skills of comedy actors like Gossett, John Amos, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, Scatman Crothers, Lillian Randolph, Hilly Hicks, and Janet DuBois. Until this time, Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, and Avon Long had appeared on TV principally as dancers and singers. And O. J. Simpson and Rafer Johnson were still familiar to viewers as outstanding athletes. If, indeed, the acting talent of such players was so impressive, the question arises as to why television producers and networks had not recognized and employed those skills until now. The answer, of course, rests in the historic relationship between TV and black America.

As well as revealing the artistic loss resulting from the stereotyping of actors, the two miniseries also suggested the viability of serious programming featuring black themes. It was a new genre of video entertainment. Americans had never been consistently exposed to the drama inherent in black history or to the issues related to minority survival in a racist nation. As a new type of programming, it seemed to renew the original TV promise of bias-free opportunity.

But the Roots phenomena failed to catalyze a new Golden Age for blacks in American television. When the applause ended, black actors returned to the familiar roles. There were many like the scholarly critic who concluded, "The people, if Roots is any indication, are clearly prepared for more important material than the media have, up to this point, been willing to provide."And there were others who offered statistical surveys to show that the majority of whites wanted more programs like Roots. Yet, less myopically, there were people like Brock Peters—who played a poor black farmer in Roots: The Next Generations—who understood reality. Appearing on Tony Brown's Journal on May 13, 1979, he explained his disappointment and understanding.

I think that the footing we thought we'd gained in the past decade isn't as substantial as we'd hoped it would be. I was always fearful of that because it's one thing to have lots of roles handed out to actors in front of the camera. But my real concern—and the concern of most of us who are in this industry—is in the area of decision-making: the kinds of roles that could be done, the kinds of projects that should be mounted, and the money to do that. We've not been in that position in any substantial degree. I am not surprised that with backlash and changing sentiments that we have to fight harder now to maintain whatever ground we've gained. It's not easy because we did not get a good, solid footing. In front of the camera isn't finally where it's at. It's what that subject is going to be, and who decides that it should be done.

The failure of Roots and Roots: The Next Generations to usher in a new era should have been anticipated. Inherent in its inspiration and realization were significant qualifiers which undermined the promise in the series. Ultimately, the programs served only to underscore the pattern of quantitative representation and qualitative restriction which typified blacks in television during the 1970s and early 1980s.

The Roots series represented a massive business undertaking. For David L. Wolper Productions and Warner Brothers Television, it meant the expenditure of millions to film the programs. For ABC, which gambled crucial prime time hours on speculation that all Americans would be attracted by the struggles of a black family, it was also a business venture.

Certainly, the productions had an obvious political tone. Only three months before Roots premiered, Leonard H. Goldenson, chairman of the board of directors of ABC, tied his network to the cause of civil rights when he warned the entertainment industry that it must lead the fight against racism. But such noble and self-serving thoughts were secondary to the fact that ABC, pleased that the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man had been so profitable in 1976, scheduled Roots because it felt that in Haley's family story there were themes which would attract and hold viewers, obtain high ratings, boost advertising rate schedules, and turn a profit for all concerned.

As a business undertaking, the programs were riskier than Rich Man, Poor Man. Serious racial themes were unfamiliar to mass America. Had the series failed to generate sizable viewership, the Roots programs would have compromised the producers and weakened network earning power for the rest of the TV season. For Roots the history of blacks in TV gave no indication that Americans would be interested in African-American social drama for eight consecutive evenings. For Roots: The Next Generations, the uncertainty was twofold. First, there was the question of whether or not Americans had been saturated by Roots, as it also had been rerun in primetime in September 1978. Although the rerun drew unprecedentedly large audiences—averaging a 25.4 rating and a 42 share, and attracting an estimated eighty million viewers—the sequel, which picked up Haley's story in 1882 and carried it to the present, risked being regarded as superfluous.

Further, there was the chance of offending mass sensibilities with a sequel perceived as purely exploitive of the original Roots. In film, and to a lesser degree in TV, sequels seldom have matched the quality or popularity of their predecessors. That had been the case with Rich Man, Poor Man—Book Two in 1976. When Ben Vereen refused to return in the role of Chicken George (Avon Long assumed the role.), he compounded the problem by using the term "rip-off" in explaining his decision. Even TV Guide headlined the question: "Is the sequel to Roots a valid continuation or a rip-off?"

As well as a calculated business venture by white corporations, many of the crucial aspects of production were carried out by non blacks. Alex Haley read and approved all scripts and publicly assumed responsibility for the "black integrity" of the final product. Yet two experienced white screenwriters, Ernest Kinoy and William Blinn, adapted his book for the miniseries. In the case of Roots: The Next Generations, moreover, most of the script was culled by screenwriters from Haley's notes and personal recollections since it was inspired by only the last forty pages of his book.

Stan Margulies, a white man, was the producer of both programs. Although black directors Gilbert Moses and Georg Stanford Brown directed individual episodes, the principal director of Roots was a white man, David Green; and John Erman was the principal director of the sequel series. Blacks were not totally absent from Roots, however, as eighteen African Americans worked in lesser technical capacities in photographic and audio aspects of the production.

If the technical aspects of the program opened few doors for blacks, white viewers were not attracted because they wanted more black dramatic shows. Most tuned in because the Roots series were good television. They were historical costume dramas, interesting and exotic adventure stories with compelling plots. Seldom had TV offered such an array of whips and chains, sex, brutal murder, two wars, and the eventual triumph of "the good guys." This was great soap opera. It was not, however, a telegenic equivalent of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, meant to inspire a new abolitionist crusade.

Roots and Roots: The Next Generations brought forth few white apologies for centuries of injustice. If anything, the series allowed whites to absolve themselves of racial prejudice without feeling contrite. Few whites would equate their own biases with the offensive racism of heartless slave merchants, brutal overseers, and slave owners; or of lower-class whites mercilessly manipulating racial intolerance to gain personal political and economic power.

In these melodramas, acts of bigotry were overwhelming. Few could approve the severance of Kunta Kinte's foot to prevent further attempts at escaping his enslaved condition. To burn a black man at the stake because he tried to collect a debt from a white man was an unbelievably gruesome response. And the denial of a motel room to war hero Haley, dressed in full Coast Guard uniform and traveling with his pregnant wife, was not only unpatriotic, it also projected an image reminiscent of the New Testament story of Joseph and the pregnant Mary unsuccessfully seeking room at the inn.

In measuring their prejudices against those encountered in the Roots programs, most whites could feel better about themselves. They could also feel less tolerant of those who still complained about daily racial biases that inhibited, but did not physically maim or kill, blacks in contemporary America.

The story lines in both miniseries were also familiar and unthreatening to white audiences. It was Horatio Alger in black, a darker version of immigrants and poor people in search of the American Dream. Despite those sinister racists who would thwart that quest, here was the recognizable theme of working for respect and wealth in the New World. Racial issues aside, watching the programs allowed viewers to rededicate themselves to a secular myth fundamental to American culture and society.

In telling their stories, however, the series left serious misunderstandings. Interested more in the adventures of the Haley family through the centuries, Roots and Roots: The Next Generations reduced institutionalized injustices to mere roadblocks on the road to familial triumph. The programs might have treated slavery and de facto racial segregation as a way of life that dehumanized its victims and brutalized its enforcers. It also might have projected racism as an invidious mind-set that continues to relegate most African Americans to economic, social, political, and intellectual poverty. Instead, the indomitable human will of Haley and his ancestors overshadowed the monstrous reality of American apartheid. The bleakness arising from being black in a white racist society, where laws and traditions chronically suppress black achievement, seemed to pale before the theatrically engaging hopes for a better tomorrow which the miniseries proclaimed.

Rather than understanding Haley's bourgeois success story as an exception to the rule, white viewers could leave the series blaming impoverished contemporary blacks for their own social deprivation. Instead of being a serialized Hollywood essay preaching "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again," the Roots dramas might have treated the African American experience more fully and more honestly. No slave ever asked to be transported to the New World. Few blacks or their descendents ever had the opportunity to leave. Trapped in degradation in a nation that justified its very existence in terms of personal liberty, democracy, and human dignity, blacks in the United States have taken more than three centuries to reach their present unequal condition. Television, however, was again misleading. Here the experience was streamlined, taking place in twenty-six hours spread over fifteen days of prime time, with appropriate climaxes to allow for commercials and station breaks.

Black viewers who might have expected an indictment of the American system were disappointed in the Roots phenomenon. Instead of systemic racism, they encountered evil individuals who personally subjugated blacks. The economic and moral arrangement which created and tolerated such brutal citizens was never adequately presented. If anything, with the middle-class prosperity seen ultimately in Alex Haley's personal affluence, the system was applauded. Blacks who wanted the series to explain their present world found that the programs ultimately questioned the personal and family initiative of modern African Americans who still had not attained wealth and status.

White viewers, on the other hand, could leave the programs with a feeling of "knowing" black America, of realizing that contemporary black poverty was the product of individual weakness and lack of application. No longer guilty of complicity in suppressing a racial minority, whites could see the Roots dramas and be content that the American Dream was still attainable. In a sense the civil rights movement fully ended when James Earl Jones entered that settlement in Gambia and found the original home of "the old African." Knowing from where they came and to where they needed to go, blacks were now on their own.

The truth is, no program could fully and honestly approach the problem of slavery and its aftermath. To do so would be to condemn the system which produced and maintained it. Just as no miniseries have lauded Lenin, Trotsky, Khomeini, Ho Chi Minh, Hitler, or Mussolini, American television will not lionize men or offer explanations that might undermine general faith in the American socioeconomic system. Popular culture in the United Statescontrolled as it is by ethics that are corporate and self-protectivedoes not produce viable commercial products that are destructive to the system. Reform is possible through popular culture, but revolution is out of the question.

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