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.
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Entry 34 (Part 1): Hearing Roots

Roots. Episode 1. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Alex Haley.

Release Date: May 30, 2016.

“They’ll think I’m playing for them, but I’m really playing for you.”

This is what Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) tells Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) on Christmas day, as a means of distracting their white masters while Kunta tries to escape, but it really could be a thesis statement for much of the music enslaved Africans performed and created. It’s a vital statement for the new version of Roots to make because music plays a central role in portraying Kunta’s forced journey from Gambia to Virginia. There was much to like in last night’s premiere installment but, as a music historian, this aspect resonated with me, so I’m going to explore it a little here. Read More

Are Things Looking Up for the Civil War on TV?

Mercy Street PBS Cast

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street.

Two months ago, I rejoiced that Amazon users did not greenlight Point of Honor. On the other hand, I wondered if the reason had less to do with the show’s crappiness and more to do with a general lack of interest in the Civil War from TV audiences. Surveying the scene now, it looks like producers don’t share my concerns. No less than three major networks are developing projects dealing with some aspect of the Civil War era. I have some reservations but the fact this is happening at all–and on the heels of the sesquicentennial, when one would expect Civil War fatigue–seems like a win. Read More

Entry 12: E.T. Wins the Civil War


Ancient Aliens, “Aliens and the Civil War,” Season 7, Episode 9. Directed by Susan E. Leventhal. Written by Rhys Thomas and Max Thompson.

Release Date: April 10, 2015.

Remember when I praised the History [Channel] for including some current scholarship in its most recent Civil War documentary? Well, screw that, because the network aired this historical abomination between the two episodes of Blood and Glory, and I fear crap sandwiches like this are what the current History [Channel] is really about.

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Entry 11: Colorizing the Civil War

Blood and Glory. Directed by Kevin Burns. Written by Kevin Burns, Eric Murphy, Rhys Thomas, and Max Thompson.

Release Date: April 7 & 14, 2015.

I had mixed feelings about this documentary before I’d seen a minute of it. My expectations for a History [Channel] show are pretty low these days, but several names I respect were involved (among them, George Rable, Peter Carmichael, Allen Guelzo, James Oakes, Mark M. Smith). Those names, however, were counter-balanced by others who’s presence was less justifiable (Ben Stein, Richard Dreyfuss, Bill O’Reilly). And then there are those colorized photos that serve as its foundation. I wasn’t a fan from the moment they first appeared. Like their colorized classic film counterparts, the colors are too pastel and there’s something unnatural about them. Then again, any documentary that makes heavy use of Civil War photography can’t be all bad. Now that I’ve seen it, I remain divided. There were things about Blood and Glory I liked and things that really bothered me. I didn’t learn anything new, but it avoided getting too bogged down in the “Football Analyst School” or the more regrettable habits of the History [Channel], and thus emerged as a fairly solid (if somewhat ephemeral) Civil War documentary. Read More