Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Roots (1977) Video Clips

Roots was an epic television miniseries, but its length (eight episodes spanning nearly twelve hours) has made it difficult for modern audiences to talk about or analyze in meaningful ways.  Here are 15 of the most important scenes from the original Roots series with brief commentary.  These clips are hosted by Critical Commons, a public media archive and fair use advocacy network. 

​Roots series opening
By the time the first episode of Roots aired on January 23, 1977, Alex Haley’s book had sold over a million copies in hardcover, ABC had invested over $6 million in the production and mar­keting of Roots, and Roots’s producers had cast several white tele­vision stars to make white audiences comfortable watching a series about a black family in slavery. Despite all of this, there was still no guarantee that Roots would be a commercial success­ful television series.  Fred Silverman, ABC’s director of pro­gramming, decided that ABC would take the unusual step of airing Roots on eight consecutive nights. “We are taking this unprecedented approach to airing a ‘Novel for Television’ to insure maximum impact and continuity for what has already proven to be one of the most important dramatic stories of our time,” Silverman said. “By creating an ‘eight-day-week’ for this unique presenta­tion we can provide the same kind of story concentration that is the very nature of a novel. A work this exceptional, this eagerly awaited, not only allows but requires exceptional treatment.”  Silverman and his colleagues later acknowledged that ABC aired Roots in an unprecedented “eight-day-week” to limit the damage if the series did not catch on with television audiences.  Despite these concerns, millions of Americans tuned in to Roots and, after eight nights, the series claimed seven of the top ten spots on the list of the most viewed shows of all time.

Kunta Kinta is born, a "disarming baby"
Roots started with a birthing mother’s cry. After months of promotion by ABC, millions of Americans tuned in to watch the opening night of the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s best-selling family story. The first thing television viewers heard and saw after the opening credits was Binta Kinte giving birth to a baby boy. Binta can be heard moaning from inside of a thatched hut in Savannah, Georgia, on a film set designed to stand in for eighteenth-century Gambia.  Opening the series with this birthing scene was strategic. Part of the strategy was to foreground some of the series’ prominent actors. Cicely Tyson, who played Binta, was an award-winning actress and, along with Ed Asner, the most famous and highest-paid actor in the cast. (Tyson had enough clout to request and receive a credit for her hairdresser, Omar.) Maya Angelou, an actress and author well known for her biography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969), played one of the midwives, while Thalmus Rasulala, recognizable from blaxploitation films and various television roles, played Omoro Kinte. The scene was also was strategic because the producers hoped starting with a birth would help the series appeal to viewers across demographic lines. Haley described a similar motivation for starting his book with Kunta’s birth and childhood. “I hope,” Haley noted, the audience will be “intrigued with a disarming baby—for babies are universal.”  

Behold the only thing greater than yourself
Holding the baby up toward a star-filled sky, Omoro Kinte says, “Kunta Kinte, behold the only thing greater than yourself.”  This is one of the most iconic moments in Roots and has been referenced multiple times, including in Kara Walker’s Camptown Ladies silhouette and The Lion King.

Introducing Ed Asner as Captain Davies
Ed Asner, famous for his role as Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, played Captain Davies in the televised version of Roots, and promotional material for the series featured Asner prominently. The Davies character, established by the screenwriters and embodied by Asner, was a religious man who was morally conflicted about taking part in his first slaving voyage.  The television production gave white characters much larger roles than in Haley’s book. In Haley’s book, the white slave catchers and slave ship crew are called toubob, and a white character with a proper name does not appear until Kunta learns the name of “Massa William Waller” at the end of chapter 51, over two hundred pages into the book. (Haley’s archives include the draft of a chapter written from the perspective of Captain Davies, but the author decided it was not needed.) In contrast, after opening with Kunta Kinte’s birth in 1750 the television series jumps ahead fifteen years to a scene set in an Annapolis, Maryland, port where Captain Thomas Davies is preparing to sail the Lord Ligonier to the coast of the Gambia. The slave ship captain in Haley’s book was unnamed and was described only from Kunta’s perspective. The captain’s personal history, motivations, and emotions were irrelevant for Haley’s story.

The Middle Passage
The Middle Passage scene in Roots was crucial to depicting the transition between freedom in Africa and slavery in the new world. In a warehouse on the outskirts of Savannah, production designer Jan Scott and her team designed and built the set for the first televised representation of the Middle Passage. The human component of the Middle Passage scene was more complicated. LeVar Burton and Ji-Tu Cumbuka, who played a character called the Wrestler, were the only Hollywood actors in the cargo hold for the Middle Passage scene. All of the other enslaved characters were young black extras recruited from Savannah. In the Washington Post, Sander Vanocur singled out the Middle Passage scene in praising Roots. “The scenes on the ship, with the slaves chained together, stacked alongside one another, lying in their vomit and excrement, . . . are something we have never seen before,” Vanocur wrote. “We have read about slavery. But we have never seen it, never in such painstaking detail and never being experienced with such excruciating pain.”

Captain Davies and “Girl on Ship”
While everyone agreed that the recreation of the slave ship’s voyage made for frighteningly realistic television, none of the Roots production team gave much thought to what shooting this scene would mean for the black performers involved. The case of Rebecca Bess is the most glaring example in this regard. Credited as “girl on ship,” Bess appears near the end of the first episode as an enslaved woman delivered to Captain Davies’s room as a “bellywarmer.” In the scene the sixteen-year-old Bess, who had never acted professionally, stares with terror at Asner’s character, her arms covering her bare breasts. While Captain Davies says he “does not approve of fornication,” it is implied that he rapes the young girl, signaling that this Christian character has too been debased by the slave trade. The next day (at the start of the second episode of the series), the young girl (still topless) climbs the rigging of the ship and jumps into the ocean to drown. In a series structured around the will of Haley’s ancestors to survive, Bess’s “girl on ship” stands out as the only character to choose death over the horrors of slavery. Bess came to Roots via Eddie Smith, a local black stunt coordinator in Savannah. She received $187 for diving from the ship into the ocean, which she had to do twice because the camera failed on the first shot. Bess did not know how to swim, so the stunt coordinator gave her lessons in the pool at the Ramada Inn where the cast was staying. Director David Greene recalled that Bess was eager to earn the money to help her parents because her mother was in the hospital. Audiences described watching Roots as a physically and emotionally wrenching experience, but creating these realistic representations of slavery often came at the expense of black performers.

Slave ship revolt
Before the Lord Ligonier arrives in Annapolis, Maryland, the captured Africans on the slave ship revolted.  This scene is the culmination of the Middle Passage part of Roots and is one of the clearest examples in the series of how black people resisted enslavement.

Kunta Kinte whipping scene
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:

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.

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.

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.

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