Roots’s most iconic scene comes at the end of the second episode where an overseer (played by Vic Morrow) commands a black man to whip Kunta, over and over again until he answers to his assigned slave name, Toby. “They were beating LeVar Burton and Kunta Kinte as one,” Burton later said of the scene.24 “I was really uncomfortable with the idea of being whipped,” Burton remembered. While makeup artists created the appearance of lacerations on his back, the whip was real. Burton had to stand, with his hands tied to scaffolding above his head, while a bullwhip struck him. On the first day of shooting the scene, Burton flinched every time the whipped cracked, so director John Erman postponed the scene for a couple of days. The young actor spent a day with the stunt expert who handled the bullwhip. Burton watched the stunt expert do tricks with the whip until Burton was comfortable that the expert could control the tip of the whip (traveling up to 120 miles an hour) so that it would wrap around the actor’s body without breaking the skin. The second shooting was successful, and Burton considered the scene one of the most powerful in the series. “Kunta was a warrior,” Burton said, “and he maintained that aspect of his identity throughout his entire life, he never surrendered who he was. . . . It was the indomitability of his human spirit, his warrior spirit, that prevented him from accepting that name, and that’s what that scene is about. I control who I am.”
Slave cabin conversations
The scenes in the slave quarters offered some moments of wry humor. For example, in this scene viewers heard about American colonists defeating the British through a dinner conversation among Belle, Fiddler, and Kunta:
This brief exchange unsettles the usual chronology of American history, marking the nation’s independence day as just one of the thousands of days before and after the Revolutionary War that black people were held in bondage. This scene calls to mind Frederick Douglass’s “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” where Douglass told an audience of New York abolitionists in 1852, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice. I must mourn.” Roots is an American story, but it is organized around the dates that are important for Haley’s generational story, not the usual dates found in US history textbooks.
Belle: I’ve never seen white folks carrying on so. They all so happy, they can’t believe it. They keep saying over and over, “The British have surrendered. The war is over, the war is over. Freedom is won.”
Fiddler: Ain’t that just fine, though? White folks be free. I’ve been worrying and tossing at night about them getting their freedom, been the mostest thing on my mind. Sure is one happy nigger now. Don’t have to worry about them poor white folks no more.
Kizzy and Missy Anne
Leslie Uggams, who played Kizzy, had the largest and most demanding role. Whereas LeVar Burton and John Amos shared the role of Kunta Kinte, the producers used makeup and state-of-the-art prosthetics to allow the thirty-three-year-old Uggams to play Kizzy from a teenager into her seventies. Uggams also had to portray a wider range of emotions than any other character. Over the course of three episodes, Kizzy learns the family history from her father, Kunta; is sold away and separated from her family; is raped by her new master, Tom Lea; gives birth to the son produced by this rape, Chicken George; and becomes the matriarch for a community of enslaved people. Uggams’s best scenes come opposite Sandy Duncan, who played Missy Anne Reynolds, the niece of Dr. William Reynolds, who owned Kizzy and Kunta. In one scene, Kizzy helps Missy Anne select clothes for dinner and Missy Anne confides in Kizzy about her romantic involvement with a distant cousin. The characters talk almost as friends, and viewers learn that Missy Anne taught Kizzy to read, a secret they need to keep from Dr. Reynolds. Moments later, over a picnic in a meadow, Missy Anne tells Kizzy that her uncle is planning to gift Kizzy to her. Producer Stan Margulies described this episode as the “one out-and-out woman’s show in the series,” and as in a melodramatic soap opera, this scene works because Uggams and Duncan wring additional emotion and meaning out of the script. Duncan is upbeat as she delivers her lines, giggling and smiling while explaining the naturalness of slavery and patriarchy. Uggams’s face registers confusion, but also a sort of wiliness as Kizzy draws Missy Anne out. Missy Anne is repeating rationales for slavery that outlived the peculiar institution and propped up romantic visions of plantation life. Roots undermines these views by pushing the idea of childhood friendship between slaves and masters to a ludicrous extreme.
Kizzy is sold away
Roots is a story about the strength and importance of families, and the difficulty of maintaining family connections during slavery. In one of the most powerful scenes, Kizzy is sold away from the Waller plantation and torn away from her parents, Kunta and Belle.
Kizzy spits in cup
In the television series Kizzy has a character arc, and a chance for a small measure of revenge, that she is denied in the book. Decades after she is sold away from the Reynolds plantation, a horse-drawn carriage arrives at the Lea plantation with a familiar passenger, Missy Anne. Kizzy recognizes Missy Anne, but Missy Anne pretends not to remember her old “friend.” When Kizzy goes to get Missy Anne water, she spits in the cup before delivering it to her. This was not initially in the script, but Uggams and director Gilbert Moses talked about how to conclude Kizzy’s storyline. “Something had to happen to put a button on this relationship,” Uggams said. It was a small victory. Kizzy remained the property of the man who had raped her and fathered her son, Chicken George. Still, Roots asked viewers to see Kizzy as more than just a bridge connecting the male members in Haley’s family history.
Chicken George learns about his father
Chicken George (played by Ben Vereen) was the grandson of Kunta Kinte and the great-great-grandfather of Alex Haley. In this scene, George learns that his father is his owner Tom Moore, who raped his mother, Kizzy.
After eight episodes, spanning over one hundred years and several generations, Alex Haley’s ancestors achieve freedom and travel via wagon train to Tennessee. Chicken George and Tom Harvey (played by Georg Stanford Brown) tell the story of Kunta Kinte and stress the importance to passing this story down across the generations. From a hilltop, Chicken George announces, “Here me old African, the flesh of your flesh has come to freedom. You is free at last.” Haley and the television producers wanted this history to be uplifting and this concluding scene makes good on the promise in the series title, Roots: The Triumph of an American Family.
Roots conclusion with Alex Haley
Roots ends with Alex Haley walking down a country road describing how, in 1921, the Haley’s welcomed a seventh generation descendent of Kunta Kinte. “That boy was me, Alex Haley, and I never forgot those stories which my Grandmother Cynthia had told me,” Haley says. “I became obsessed with a desire to know more about our family, more about its history. It was a search that would take me finally twelve years to complete. And those things that I learned I wrote in a book called, Roots.”
Alex Haley never published another book after Roots. He loved talking to people but found himself overwhelmed by the praise, criticism, and legal troubles Roots generated. “He made history talk,” Jesse Jackson said of Alex Haley at the author’s funeral in 1992. “He lit up the long night of slavery. He gave our grandparents personhood. He gave Roots to the rootless.” In this light, pointing out the flaws in Haley’s family history feels like telling your grandmother she is lying. Fortunately, Haley’s fabrications are only a small part of a much larger, more interesting, and more complicated story of the making of Roots. Making Roots tells that story.