Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ comes to life, and TV will never be the same (1977)

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Roots TV miniseries 1977

Roots TV miniseries about slavery - 1977

TV will never be the same

By Sander Vanocur, Washington Post

ABC is asking for trouble by showing “Roots” on television.

From Jan. 23 through Jan. 30, ABC will present a 12-hour adaptation of Alex Haley’s best-selling book, Roots, which traces the history of his family from Africa to the United States.

The trouble for ABC will arise from a great many of us asking why we cannot see more television like this, not just on ABC, but on CBS and NBC as well.

Ordinarily, l flee in panic from the kind of statement I am about to make, namely. that television will never be the same after this nation has seen “Roots.” The problem with television is that it usually remains the same, which is the worst indictment that can be made against it.

But as I sat the other night with others at a special screening where ABC presented the first two-hour episode plus scenes from the remaining 10 hours, it occurred to me that something quite revolutionary was about to happen to television with great implications for its future.

On one level, there is the bold programming decision by ABC’s Fred Silverman to run it consecutively, night after night. The first two-hour episode will run two hours on Sunday, Jan. 23, to be followed by another two hours on Monday. Single-hour episodes will be run on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. These will be followed by a two-hour episode Friday, one hour on Saturday and a two-hour conclusion on Sunday, Jan. 30.

SEE THE SCHEDULE: A guide to Roots: The TV miniseries, night by night (1977)

January 24 1977 - LA Times - Roots miniseries

Beyond what has been seen

But more revolutionary than the manner in which it is being presented to us is that David Wolper’s production extends far beyond the boundaries of what has previously been deemed permissible on our television screens.

I speak here not of the sight of bare women’s breasts, nor of the sight of the ceremonial circumcision knife as the young Haley ancestor Kunta Kinte, and other young men are about to end their tribal initiation into manhood, or the scene where Thomas Advies, a conscience-stricken slave-ship captain is torn by his Old Testament Christianity and his lust for a young slave girl.

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No, there is something more. It is the manner in which this production, on which Haley acted as consultant, has decided to confront a central experience of this nation’s development slavery, and what it has done to blacks and whites alike.

Roots TV miniseries 1977

A sense of awe

The scenes on the ship, with the slaves being chained together, stacked alongside one another, lying in their vomit and excrement, being taken on deck to be doused with salt water that burns into the wounds that have been inflicted by the lashes of a whip, are something we have never seen before. We have read about slavery, but we have never seen it — never in such painstaking detail, and never being experienced with such excruciating pain.

Television, when it sets out to portray reality, usually distorts it or just nibbles at it.

I am at loss for the proper word to use to describe what television has done with Haley’s work. “Enhance” will not do, nor is “heightened” sufficient. There is no word that is adequate. All you know is that what you have seen leaves you with a terrible and quite transcending anguish.

It is very odd. Television, which washes over us each day with the fantasy world of game shows, soap operas, talk shows, the nightly news, sitcoms, and cops and robbers rarely unites us in a sense of silent awe.

Only rarely has that happened in the short history of television — after the assassinations of the ‘60s and on that Saturday evening in the summer of 1974 when we sat in silent awe. individually and collectively. as the clerk of the House Judiciary Committee polled its members on the first article of impeachment against Richard M. Nixon.

“Roots” will be another of those rare occasions when television will leave us with that sense of silent awe.

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WATCH ROOTS NOW: Stream the original TV series or get it on disc

Madge Sinclair and John Amos - Roots miniseries from 1977

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