Roots: The Next Generations

Anyone who has around at the time will remember the amazing success of Roots.  It swept the world in fact, flying the word ‘nigger’ into first American and European living rooms, and from there-on-in Africa and every other territory.  When video took off in the 1980s, ‘nigger’ went viral.  This was merely the effect of the unspeakable being spoken on television. Roots along with Jesus Christ starring Robert Powell became massive sellers, most especially among communities everywhere that were happy to treat them as straight up history lessons.

Roots: The Next Generations goes for the nigger shock even more so, almost as if it were expected.  It’s ‘aint no niggers riding this train’ one second, and  much more.  Today, it looks in large like shit, and maybe it was in its day.

Underneath all of this is every invisible televisual cliché available, telling a story that is long and completely — the pun is essential — black and white.  For the sake of history, there would be many better places to go, although the facts are pretty evenly distributed here, bare as they may be:   it’s 1882 an Tom Harvey (played by Georg Stanford Brown), the great-grandson of Kunta Kinte, has become a leader of the black community in Henning, Tennessee.  The town's white leader, Colonel Warner (Henry Fonda) is a reasonable dude, but race relations in the community are still strained with the Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, and later on the Ku Klux Klan, all increasing the pressure.

Probably of greatest interest early on in this 850 minute culture-fest is the story of the Colonel’s youngest son Jim (Richard Thomas) falling in love with African American school teacher, Carrie Barden (played by Fay Hauser).  First of all he can’t believe a colored can read, then that a colored as read Mrs Browning, and he tries to bond with her over Walt Whitman, as a host of contemporary literary references are made.

It’s quite possible to watch all of this without having seen Roots itself, and in fact the original story of Roots somewhat belittles what we have here, probably the meat of Alex Haley’s story.  If you’re reading the book, it really is Alex Haley’s story, although in this filmed versions, it’s everybody’s story.  The power of the books  is the ego-less ascent that author Alex Haley makes to his own birth and life, which happens here (Tom and Carrie are Haley’s grandparents) a lot later on, still to the soundtrack a background of racial oppression.

When James Earl Jones comes on the scene as Alex Haley in his 40s, in the 1960s, he interviews figures as George Lincoln Rockwell (played by Marlon Brando) and Malcolm X (Al Freeman, Jr.).  the come the roots themselves, as a visit to his relatives in Henning then sparks Haley’s  quest  to research the rest of his family history.  Finally Alex travels to Gambia and listens to a tribal historian, in Jufureh.  

Alex Haley was in fact way more interesting than the sum of all these parts.  For one he was the first person to conduct an interview for Playboy magazine. The interview, with Miles Davis, appeared in the September 1962 issue. In the interview, Davis candidly spoke about his thoughts and feelings on racism and it was that interview which set the tone for what became a significant feature of the magazine. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Playboy Interview with Haley was the longest he ever granted to any publication.

Throughout the 1960s, Haley was responsible for some of the magazine's most notable interviews, including an interview with American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, who agreed to meet with Haley only after Haley, in a phone conversation, assured him that he was not Jewish. Haley remained calm and professional during the interview, even though Rockwell kept a handgun on the table throughout it. Haley also interviewed Muhammad Ali, who spoke about changing his name from Cassius Clay. Other interviews include Jack Ruby's defense attorney Melvin Belli, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jim Brown, Johnny Carson, and Quincy Jones.