Roots: The Next Generations

alex-haley1.jpgAt the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the television mini series Roots changed my life. And I’m not the only person. Roots was a cultural phenomenon—the most watched event in television history that literally transformed the way America thought about race. Based on the award-winning book by Alex Haley, Roots recounted the history of his family, starting with Kunta Kinte, his great-great-great grandfather, who was abducted from Africa and sold into slavery in Virginia during the late 1700s. Because of the amazing success of Roots, which only tracked four generation of Haley’s family, ending just after the Civil War, it really was no big surprise that television-viewing America would want to see more of this epic saga.

What is interesting about the original Roots is that ABC, the network that originally aired it, was convinced it was going to be a bomb. Sure, there was a ton of hype in the weeks leading up to its premiere in 1977, but the two things to keep in mind are that nothing like it had ever been seen before, and that America—since its very inception—has always underestimated black people in every way imaginable. With that in mind, ABC was not expecting to have a hit. But when it did, Warner Brothers—the company that produced Roots—knew it would have to have a follow-up.

Roots: The Next Generations first aired in February of 1979, two years and one month after the original mini series. Picking up a dozen years after the first series ended, Next Generations starts off in Tennessee, where Tom Harvey (Georg Sanford Brown), the great grandson of Kunta Kinte, has relocated his family in the years following the Civil War. A successful blacksmith, Tom is also something of a leader within the black community of Henning, fighting for equality of his people. As the years pass, Tom’s daughter Cynthia (Bever-Leigh Banfield) marries Will Palmer (Stan Shaw), and they have a daughter, Bertha (Irene Cara). Bertha goes on to marry Simon Haley (Dorian Harewood), and they have a son, Alex, who grows up to be played by James Earl Jones. And we all know who Alex Haley was, because he’s the one who wrote Roots in the first place.

The most fundamental problem with Roots: The Next Generations is that when all is said and done, it is a sequel. The original series had been in development for many years (in fact, Haley had yet to compete the book before production began), and it is clear that Roots was very much a labor of love for everyone involved. By comparison, the sequel was pretty much rushed into production on the heels of the first series’ success. Not as much time was spent writing the scripts or developing the series. And it shows. Not as much money was spent on the production. And it shows. Not as much heart and soul went into the production. And it shows.

Episode 1: The series gets off to a slow but solid start, and the strength of the episode is found in the performances of Georg Sanford Brown, and Henry Fonda as Col. Frederick Warner, an ex-Confederate soldier who has turned to politics. As the only returning cast member from the original series, Brown has his work cut out for him as he must bridge the gap between the two series. Brown’s performance as Tom, a tortured, flawed man who wants equality for his people, but is crippled by his hatred for white folks, stands out as one of the best of Next Generations. Richard Thomas co-stars as Jim Warner, the poet son of Col. Warner, who becomes the black sheep of the family when he falls in love with Carrie Barden (Fay Hauser), a black school teacher.

Episode 2: Brown and Fonda continue to dominate every scene they are in, but they are joined by Stan Shaw as Will Palmer, the man who will marry Tom Harvey’s daughter, Cynthia. Starting off in 1896, this episode has Next Generations hitting its stride, and showcases itself as being one of the best episodes within this series. It is also noteworthy because this is the episode where the white people really start to be portrayed as evil. Sure, there were moments in the previous episode, but this is where the general disdain and disgust really sets in. This is also the episode where we really notice what a terrible job was done with the old-age make-up. We begin to see the first of bad prosthetic applications that gives all the actors really puffy bags under their eyes.

Episode 3: Although it started off a bit slow, Next Generations hit a good stride by the second episode. It maintains that stride in this episode, but there are signs of weakness in this episode that will become a problem as the series progresses. The first big problem you have is Irene Cara as Bertha, daughter of Will and Cynthia Palmer. Cara has always been more fun to look at than to watch, and Next Generations is no exception, as she struggles to keep up with the other actors. This is also where the overall weakness in the scripts begins to show, as Bertha is seldom more than a shallow, spoiled girl who is more irritating than charming. When she meets her future husband, Simon Haley, it is difficult to see what he sees in her, because she’s so vapid. Another problem is Simon, who is definitely idealistic, but as the series continues, his idealism is too closely tied to his prick-like behavior. And finally, after having developed the characters of Jim Warner and his wife Carrie, the series pretty much forgets about them by the time this episode is over, never offering any real explanation as to what happened to them. The shining star of the episode is Ossie Davis, who becomes a mentor to Simon while he works as a Pullman porter.

Episode 4: Having found its own comfortable groove, this is the episode where Next Generations pretty much peaked. Chronicling Simon’s experiences in the Army during World War I, this episode has a bit of an epic feel, as it shows Simon and other members of the all-colored 92nd Infantry fighting in France. We also get to see how really bad the Army treated black soldiers, how well the French treated them, and we get a tiny glimpse at the Red Summer of 1919—a time of deadly race riots throughout the United States that has all but been forgotten these days. What makes this particular episode so strong is that it does what Roots does best, which is the presentation of important historical events, within the context of one family. Bernie Casey and Theodore Lehmann stand out as two of Simon’s fellow soldiers, but Rosey Grier and Pam Grier are completely wasted in a pair of cameos.

Episode 5: This is where the series starts to lose steam. The Great Depression is on, and Simon Haley, having graduated from college, is stuck working for his father-in-law, Will Palmer. Simon catches a break, when he is hired on as a professor at a college in Alabama. But Simon’s career ambitions and his diligent fight to help local sharecroppers get decent treatment leaves him blind to the ailing Bertha. What was established as Simon’s idealism in the previous episode becomes a bit tiring, as he looks down on all those around him. Yes, the man has principals that should be applauded, but he also comes across as an asshole who never thinks about others. For the most part, the entire episode really belongs to Stan Shaw, who only appears in the first few minutes as the very aged Will Palmer. Shaw, who was in his late twenties when he co-starred in Roots, captures the physicality of an old, arthritic man. The episode is also noted for the arrival of Beah Richards, who takes over as the older Cynthia, the grandmother of Alex Haley.

Episode 6: Hands down, the weakest and most disappointing episode, not only of Next Generations, but of the entire Roots series. Damon Evans, best known as the other Lionel on The Jeffersons, is miscast as Alex Haley in his late teens, all the way through his mid-twenties. Going against the wishes of his father, Alex drops out of college, and joins the Coast Guard. He meets Nan (Debbie Allen), who he eventually marries, but the marriage falls apart because Alex is a bit of a loser. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life, he struggles to become a professional writer, while drowning in a sea of self-pity. It is hard to care about Alex, in part because Evans plays him with so much forced emotion that he never seems real, and also because this is the single worst written episode in the series. What’s interesting is that Harewood is the only actor in the series who has aged that hasn’t had to put on the bad prosthetics. It’s almost as if Harewood said, “Don’t put none of that shit on me.”

Episode 7: Of all the episodes in the entire Roots series, this is the only one that could stand alone from all the others. That’s to say there is enough of a disconnect from the overall series, and enough of a self-contained plot, that with a little creative editing, this final episode could be viewed away from the rest of the series. But it is part of the entire saga, and the final act as Haley (all grown up and looking like James Earl Jones) is still struggling to make a name for himself. His big break comes when he meets and does a story on Malcolm X (Al Freeman, Jr.), with whom he would eventually collaborate with on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley’s next big break comes when he gets to interview George Lincoln Rockwell (Marlon Brando), the head of the American Nazi Party. But despite his new-found success, Haley still struggles with uncertainty, and the fear that his life will have amounted to nothing. During a pivotal a conversation with Malcolm X, Haley realizes that he has something many black Americans don’t: a sense of history as to who he is, and where he came from. This realization sets him off on a trail to delve more deeply into the stories he was told as a child—stories that include tales of an African kidnapped and brought to America as a slave.

Although this is not the best episode of the series, it is one of the strongest of Next Generations. Jones gives a great performance as Alex Haley. It’s weird, however, seeing Jones playing the son of Dorian Harewood’s Simon Haley, as Jones is nearly twenty years older than Harewood, and even with make-up and gray hair, it shows. Brando, who won an Emmy for his brief appearance, also delivers a solid performance, but it is pretty much the standard Brando stuff that defined all of his post-Godfather work in the 1970s. Al Freeman, Jr.’s performance as Malcolm X is a bit disappointing, in that the character lacks any real sort of charisma. Freeman gave a phenomenal performance in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X as Elijah Muhammad, and he’s been great in everything from The Dutchman to Once Upon a Time, When We Were Colored, but here he just isn’t firing on all cylinders. But the problem isn’t so much Freeman’s performance, as it is the way Malcolm X has been written in the script.

Try as hard as it might, Roots: The Next Generations will never be Roots. The first series earned its status of being a classic, and it has retained its power and resonance over the last thirty years. But the same can’t be said for Next Generations. It is entertaining enough, but it lacks the same overall quality of the original, and while it definitely has strengths, it also has some very apparent weaknesses. Only a small handful of the characters have any real emotional depth, and there are literally entire episodes where you barely care about anyone on the screen. When all is said and done, Next Generations never gives you the feeling that you have witnessed the history of a real family.

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One Response to “Roots: The Next Generations”

  1. Chief Scalpum Whiteman Says:

    Roots:The Next Generation: Isn’t that where Kunta Kinte got that sweet visor that lets him see like a normal man?

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