Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How Roots Captivated an Entire Nation

From the Washington Post, "30 Years Later, 'Roots' Remains a Stirring Story," by Curt Fields , a Washington Post Staff Writer, on 5 October 2007  --  With hundreds of television channels to choose from today, it's hard to imagine a program truly capturing the attention of the nation. Yes, there are moments from the tragic (Sept. 11, 2001) to the ridiculous (O.J. in the white Bronco) that rivet us, and the Super Bowl has become a national religious service for the country's secular denomination. But when it comes to scripted shows, even the most hyped ones reach only slices of the population.

But from Jan. 23 through Jan. 30, 1977, the nation collectively turned its eyes to a 12-hour miniseries called "Roots." The drama, based on the book by Alex Haley, traced several generations of a slave family, beginning with Kunta Kinte, a young West African man kidnapped by slave traders and shipped to America. Now, in connection with the show's 30th anniversary, Warner Home Video is releasing "Roots: The Complete Collection" (available Tuesday, $119.98), which includes "Roots: 30th Anniversary Edition" plus the sequels, "Roots: The Next Generations" and "Roots: The Gift" (a Christmas-themed movie). "Roots: The Next Generations" also will be available by itself ($59.98).

Previous miniseries such as "Rich Man, Poor Man" (1976) were successful but ran over several weeks. So it was a ratings gamble for ABC to schedule "Roots" on eight consecutive nights, particularly considering its frank depiction of slavery and the fact that the black characters were the story's heroes and the white characters its villains. The gamble paid off beyond anyone's most optimistic hopes. "Roots" earned higher ratings than any entertainment program before it, averaging a 44.9 rating and a 66 audience share. The final night's single-episode ratings record wasn't broken until 1983, with the finale of "M*A*S*H."

The show had an impact far beyond mere numbers, though. For a while at least, it made race and racial history a topic of conversation in America. More than 200 colleges and universities developed courses built around it. Genealogy became a fast-growing hobby as Americans decided that they, too, wanted to know the story of their families.

Among the collection's extras are featurettes ("The Struggle to Make Roots," "Connecting With the Past") and an interview with Haley by British journalist David Frost. Also included is the informative documentary "Crossing Over: How Roots Captivated an Entire Nation" and "Roots: One Year Later," a program from 1978 that, while a tad self-congratulatory, is nonetheless interesting.

The original story feels timeless. Even 30 years later it engrosses. That's in part due to its cast. The lengthy roster includes LeVar Burton, who was one of more than 150 actors who auditioned for the role of Kunta Kinte, John Amos, Cicely Tyson, Moses Gunn, Ed Asner, Ralph Waite, Louis Gossett Jr., Lorne Greene, Robert Reed, Leslie Uggams, Chuck Connors, Scatman Crothers, Georg Stanford Brown, Ben Vereen, Richard Roundtree, Vic Morrow, Maya Angelou and O.J. Simpson.

More important, the main characters are well-rounded. They're not symbols but human beings in whom you can invest emotion. And the themes of family and the quest for freedom are relatable, no matter the era or the viewer. (source: The Washington Post, © 2007 The Washington Post Company)

How Roots Captivated an Entire Nation

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