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Roots 30 years later

October 26, 2007 | Page 11

JOE ALLEN and PAUL D'AMATO look back at the huge impact of the celebrated TV mini-series.

"THIRTY YEARS ago, just one year after our nation's bicentennial, there came a new American revolution, one that was very much televised," declared Queen Latifah at last spring's 59th Emmy award.

"Roots, based on Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling novel about his African ancestors in slavery, was broadcast on ABC for eight consecutive and historic nights," Latifah said. "The show averaged a 44.9 rating and a 66 percent audience share. And the finale that aired on January 30, 1977, became the single most-watched TV show in American history."

Nearly 85 percent of American households watched some part of Roots. The 12-hour mini-series told the story of several generations of a slave family, from the enslavement of Kunta Kinte, born in Africa and forced into slavery, through to his descendants at the end of the Civil War. In the final episode, Kunta Kinte's great-grandson joins the Union Army and wins his emancipation.

It is hard to convey today the excitement and debate that Roots generated across the country. According to film historian Bruce Chadwick, "Business at restaurants, movie theaters and sport events was way down during Roots as Americans dropped everything to follow the saga...Schoolteachers discussed Roots for months. It was debated in college fraternities and sororities, where students gathered to watch it each night, and in newspaper offices, mail rooms and loading docks."

Coming nearly a decade after the peak of the civil rights movement, Roots was not only embraced by the Black community but--to the surprise of critics--also by many whites. As the essay on Roots on the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site explains, "Executives simply had not expected that a show with Black heroes and white villains could attract such huge audiences."

"Oddly, many whites seem to feel not guilt but an unexpected shock of identification with Blacks," wrote one commentator in Time magazine at the time. This "shock of identification" with the Roots saga by mostly (non-Anglo) whites was based on a belief that their own history had been distorted or taken away from them in the great melting pot of America.

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IF ROOTS demonstrated the power of television to dramatize important historical issues in American history such as slavery and racism, it also revealed television's limits. Aside from leading to a mediocre sequel, Roots II, television failed to produce shows dealing with equivalent subject matter or quality.

Hollywood, whether in its feature film, cable or network television wings has failed to devote the resources to producing anything like Roots for the civil rights movement. "That the story of the most important social and political movement in this country's history has gone untold in its dominant narrative art form [feature films] is shocking on any number of levels," according to Washington Post staff writer Ann Hornaday.

There have been individual feature films like Spike Lee's Malcolm X in 1992 or smaller television films about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but overall, Hollywood has deliberately avoided anything with the historical breadth of Roots. Hollywood producers have traditionally made excuses for this by arguing that historical dramas don't make money--or more particularly, that Black-themed stories don't sell to a large enough audience.

Yet historical dramas like Gandhi with Ben Kingsley or Schindler's List with Liam Neeson were huge international hits, and there are by now plenty of films centering on Black characters that have done well at the box office.

The answer seems to lie where it always has in Hollywood--with racism and contempt for the real history of the United States. "We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement," ranted former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Of course, there have been important changes in regards to Hollywood's portrayal of Blacks and in the growth in the number of leading Black actors. Spike Lee was the first of several African American directors who attempted to introduce new themes and break old stereotypes. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) and John Singleton's Rosewood (1997), to name two of several, are films that explored the issue of race in refreshing and innovative ways.

Moreover, especially in television, interracial relationships are much more prevalent than in the past (for example, in the NBC hit Heroes), and African American actors have more roles to choose from than in the past.

Nevertheless, Blacks are often still expected to play violent gang-bangers and drug dealers on the big and small screens. In the 2007 vigilante film, The Brave One, a menacing young Black man (Jermel Howard) approaches Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) on the subway, licks his knife and asks, "Have you ever been fucked by a knife?"

Racial stereotyping isn't confined to Blacks. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, "The roles suddenly being created for Arab-heritage actors often are limited to those of terrorists or are otherwise so poorly drawn that actors must swallow their pride to take them."

The Egyptian-born actor Sayed Badreya says that when he first arrived in Hollywood in 1986 he "couldn't work. I was too handsome," he laughs. "So I put on some weight and grew a beard, and suddenly I was working every day and playing the angry Arab."

It will probably take another powerful movement against racism in the U.S. to get us back to point when another Roots can take the country by storm.

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