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DVD Review: Exploring Our Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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Exploring Our Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.explores the roots of nine prominent African-Americans.  While many of us can use the resources of Ellis Island to trace our families’ entry into the United States, for African-Americans who descended from Africans imported for the slave trade, until recent years the search wasn’t possible. With advances in genetics and genealogy, the impossible is now possible.

Oprah Winfrey, Chris Tucker, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Dr. Ben Carson, Dr. Mae Jemison, Dr. Sara Lawerence-Lightfootand Bishop T.D. Jakes are featured on the first DVD in this three-disc set, “African American Lives.” They discuss their memories of their families, and learn from Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., about their heritage. This is African-American history, and it is fascinating American history as well. Jones, Winfrey, and others share heartbreaking stories from their childhood as well as segregation memories. Hearing these stories from people we’ve come to know (through their public personas) instills an appreciation for the reality of life that a segment of our society lived and sometimes fought.

The second disc, “African American Lives 2,” features Chris Rock, Jackie Joyner-Kersey, Tom Joyner, Kathleen Henderson, Tina Turner, Don Cheadle, Linda Johnson Rice, Peter Gomes, Maya Angelou, Bliss Broyard, and Morgan Freeman. As in Disc One, vintage photographs and home movies illustrate the past, and statistics—some shocking—provide context for the stories. Participants learn startling things about their forebears and the audience shares their sense of discovery.

“Faces of America,” the third disc, explores the roots of a diverse selection of notables: Stephen Colbert,, Kristi Yamaguchi, Mike Nichols, Eva Longoria, Mario Batali, Elizabeth Alexander, Yo-Yo Ma, Dr. Mehmet Oz, H.M. Queen Noor, Louise Erdrich, Malcolm Gladwell, and Meryl Streep. This installment introduces the melting pot—different nationalities and religions. Gates goes back to their families’ origins and looks at historical events that occurred during their lives.

Throughout the three installments tears are shed, laughs are shared, and dusty history comes to life. Viewers are also introduced to the human genome, and its part in our genetic history.

Exploring Our Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is thoroughly absorbing.  One is left feeling torn between wanting very much to know who and what cultures contributed to the person one has become, and fear of what skeletons might be disturbed.

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