Entry 34 (Part 2): The Blackness of Roots

Roots. Episodes 2-4. Directed by Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter, and Bruce Beresford. Written by Alison McDonald, Charles Murray, and Lawrence Konner. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Alex Haley.

Release dates: May 31 – June 2, 2016.

The new Roots concluded last Thursday and I thought it was mostly well done. A busy schedule and other commitments prevented me from commenting on the entire series until now. So, instead of offering a straightforward review, I’m going to target an aspect that has largely gone unmentioned: the series’ consistent commitment to the black perspective and how that affects its portrayal of whites. Remarkably, Roots almost never tells its story from the point of view of a white character. Some critics consider this a weakness, but I see it as a welcome narrative choice. One of the central problems with the original series was how it heightened white roles to attract white audiences. This new Roots corrects that error and, in doing so, presents us with a more realistic depiction of the master-slave relationship—portraying whites as distant unknowable interlopers, whose involvement with slaves inevitably results in violence and emotional trauma.

Even in our current golden age of films and shows about slavery, white perspectives have still received pleny of screen time. The second half of 12 Years a Slave is just as much a character study of slaveowner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) as anything else. Django Unchained partners Django (Jamie Foxx) with a white German abolitionist (Christoph Waltz) and gives slaveholder Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) ample opportunity to express his worldview. Underground adopts a variety of point-of-view characters, several of which are white, including abolitionists, a slave-catcher, and a large-scale planter/politician. I’m not criticizing these choices. In most cases, they enrich the narrative by exploring how slavery shapes the lives of black and white Americans.

But Roots takes a different tack. For most of the series’ run, the master class is separated and obscured from its enslaved property. It takes over 30 minutes for a white person to even appear in the first episode and when they do, as a group of English slave-traders making their way across the Middle Passage with Kunta Kinte in tow, they are malevolent. The men bark orders at their human cargo and occasionally steal away women into their quarters. One could criticize this as an overly simplistic depiction, but I think it’s more than that. While these slavers surely had complex and full lives, that doesn’t matter to the men and women they’ve kidnapped. Interactions like these were all most Africans would have had with these men, thus creating an impression that whites are adversaries and ultimately mysterious. This is the slave’s perspective, accurately rendered.

The trend persists throughout the first two episodes. Kunta’s two masters are almost always distant. He sees very little of his first master and what little we get suggests a committed white supremacist with little regard for his slaves’ humanity. The point of contact between most slaves and white society was the overseer, and this is true for Kunta, who famously gets whipped for refusing to accept his Anglo name, “Toby.” Even when the narrative allows for some positive interaction between masters and slaves, the result is inevitably detrimental to the slave and ultimately leaves the white character at a distance. Kunta becomes the stage-driver for his second master, William Waller (Matthew Goode) and the relationship seems like a good one until Kunta mistakenly suggests Waller’s new nephew is, in fact, his son (he is, by the way). Waller immediately turns on Kunta and refers to him as merely a “nigger.”

This moment reverberates throughout the series, as potentially constructive relationships between blacks and whites inevitably break and white characters generalize black characters as nondescript members of an inferior race. Any acknowledgement of black individuality or humanity is subsumed by the slave system and white supremacy. This is the central theme of the entire third episode, in which Chicken George (Rege-Jean Page) works to protect himself and his family by loyally serving his master and father, Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Unlike previous white characters, we get to know Lea pretty well because George spends so much time with him. As both a master chicken breeder and Lea’s son, George becomes part of Lea’s inner circle, even coaching him to victory in a duel. And yet, George and Lea eventually separate as, even at the moment of granting George his freedom, Lea places his interests above his property’s and George not only remains enslaved but is shipped off to England for 20 years. When George protests, Lea repeats Waller’s generalization of all African Americans by screaming, “Get this nigger off of me!” The final episode reveals the ultimate implications of this idea by depicting the Fort Pillow Massacre—an act purely predicated on the denial of black humanity.

For our black enslaved characters, the only reaction tot his situation is a sort of performance and one of Roots‘s greatest achievements is the way it depicts this aspect of slave life. The central conflict between Fiddler and Kunta is the latter’s refusal to adopt a gracious and subservient persona. Kunta never completely does so, but by appearing to take the name Toby, he’s engaging with this sort of accommodation. His behavior around Waller is similarly artificial, only showing true emotion at the moment Kizzie is taken away. George’s entire arc is based around this idea of sublimating his own identity to one Lea and other whites will find acceptable. His life on Lea’s plantation is one extended performance, leaving George uncertain of his true identity until Lea snaps the illusion by sending him to England.

The final episode continues this narrative, as George adopts the same persona in England to protect himself while his son, Tom (Sedale Threatt, Jr.), enacts an even more submissive performance to stay in the good graces of his masters, the Murrays. Tom pursues several strategies—first trying to endear himself to violent white supremacist Frederick Murray (Lane Garrison), but abandons this course when Frederick allows Confederate soldiers to rape Tom’s wife. Tom then allies himself with Frederick’s wife, Nancy (Anna Paquin, doing her best with a character straining credulity), but her abolitionist promises also prove empty, as she’s eventually discovered by Frederick and hanged. In this Roots, relying on whites inevitably results in disaster and familial separation.

This tension between Roots‘s white and black characters is never fully resolved. One of the last scenes finds George, now a black Union soldier, being pursued by Confederate guerrillas and seeking refuge in a Union camp. The Federals refuse to give him shelter because the war is over and they’re tired of helping slaves. George’s status as a fellow soldier doesn’t carry any weight but adopting his old persona as a submissive and amusing black caricature wins them over and earns him asylum. When we leave Roots, slavery is over and Kunta’s descendants have set out on their own, but they still live in a white world—one in which they will always have to wear a mask and ultimately only count on each other. This is a crucial aspect of the master-slave relationship and Roots does a fabulous job exploring it.

Additional Dispatches:

  • As stated at the outset, I liked the new Roots. From what I’ve read, it seems this was an easier ride for those of us who never saw the original (for instance, Glenn Brasher, who reviewed the 1977 series for this bloghad more problems with the new one than I did). This could be because the original really is that much better or there’s a little emotional nostalgia at play. When I get the time, I’ll watch the 1977 series and decide for myself.
  • One common complaint is the new Roots tries to to spice up the narrative by introducing more action, and I agree this usually doesn’t work. The last episode is especially problematic because it (and I never thought I’d say this) spends too much time on the Civil War. Having George join the USCT was a good choice but getting Tom involved in Union espionage was a little much. You could have built a much more interesting and realistic story about the war’s day-to-day effects on plantation life and the way slaves used the war to resist their masters.
  • My first post on Roots focused on music and, while it never played as central a role as it did in the first episode, the series continued to use music well. The Mandinka lullaby that featured so prominently in that episode recurs throughout to great effect. I especially liked the scene in the last episode when George hears it played by slave fiddlers at a Confederate ball and realizes it’s become part of the region’s musical heritage. This is a nice nod to the way African culture seeped into southern (and ultimately American) culture, most evidently through music.
  • That being said, I cringed when George’s unit played “Marching through Georgia” on their way to Fort Pillow in spring 1864. It wouldn’t be published until February 1865.

Next Entry: Free State of Jones

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4 comments

  1. ladylavinia1932 · December 22

    The final episode reveals the ultimate implications of this idea by depicting the Fort Pillow Massacre—an act purely predicated on the denial of black humanity.

    Several years after the war, George had moved his family to Henning, Tennessee; were the Fort Pillow massacre took place. This is why I have a problem with the massacre taking place in this story. I find it hard to believe that George would move his family to a location where he was nearly killed during the war.

  2. 90Minutes · June 10, 2016

    When George protests, Lea repeats Waller’s generalization of all African Americans by screaming, “Get this nigger off of me!”

    This is where the audience along with George finally and fully see Tom Lea’s true feelings about his son. At the end of the day, he was just a nigger to Tom. For most of episode 3, there was some ambiguity of the Tom-George relationship. We saw glimpses of Tom possibly caring for his son but when push came to shove, Tom firmly stayed in his role as the white slave master and George, although, his offspring, was a slave. Interesting too, at the beginning of the 4th episode, an old and wretched Tom Lea has no hesitation in reminding George he was his “daddy”.

    • Christian McWhirter · June 10, 2016

      All true, but don’t forget in the reunion scene Lea first doesn’t recognize George and sees him as just another black man. Lea’s initial impulse is to shoot George. The scene repeats itself only moments later when Frederick also immediately threatens to shoot George after first encountering him.

  3. 90Minutes · June 10, 2016

    Excellent analysis, one of the most interesting articles concerning the new Roots series.

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