Written by Musgo Del Jefe
The historical mini-series has gone the way of the dinosaur, at least in name. From the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, we were privileged to experience some of the best long-form storytelling ever to be seen on television. Roots kicked off the trend in 1977 with the finale still reigning as the third highest-rated program ever to air on television. This lead to some remarkable adaptations of works considered too long to make into theatrical films. The best were led by entries like Centennial, Shogun, Masada, The Winds Of War, and North and South. The multi-part series is the perfect format to tell a sweeping historical drama. Told over many nights or weeks, the best of these drops into key moments in the lives of the characters, tell an episodic story, and lay the groundwork for an ongoing theme.
Roots: The Next Generations followed a mere two years after the success of the original series. Roots told the story of Alex Haley's African-American family from its origins in Africa with Kunta Kinte through the end of the Civil War with Chicken George and his son Tom (Alex's great grandfather). The story of Haley's family from Africa, through being forced into slavery, through the days as slaves in America to freedom at the end of the war was as a powerful story. While telling the story of Haley's family, there are the rich stories of family and tradition that apply to all viewers. It's no surprise the rise in interest in genealogy that happened after Roots aired. And there's the story of America and the growth of a young nation that happens around the family. For a family caught up in slavery, the end of the Civil War and Emancipation was a natural emotional stopping point for the first miniseries.
The Next Generations picks up the torch in post-Civil War Tennessee in 1882. Chicken George is now an old man and his son, Tom Harvey is struggling as the first generation of freed blacks. The first miniseries' journey from freedom to slavery is mirrored by Next Generations' journey from slavery to freedom. Harvey struggles to raise his family in this new world. He must struggle with Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and the role of blacks in a free society. His daughter will marry Will Palmer by the second episode in 1896 and their child, Bertha, will be Alex Haley's mother.
The third and fourth episodes deal with Bertha and future husband, Simon Haley. Simon's experience in World War I fighting with the 92nd Infantry Colored marks a nice tent pole mark for the story. The bravery of these soldiers will begin to place them on a path to equality that will make it possible for Alex Haley's (played to perfection by James Earl Jones) opportunities in World War II in the Pacific and his ultimate freedom to pursue a career in writing.
The last episode details the final leg of the journey that will take us neatly back to the start of the very first episode of Roots. Alex collaborates with Malcom X on his autobiography and has a controversial interview with American Nazi, George Lincoln Rockwell (Marlon Brando in full-blown overacting mode – ala Apocalypse Now and Superman). The professional success he gains leads to Alex's 12-year quest to retrace his family history all the way back to Kunta Kinte in Africa. The triumph of his quest is not just that of an African-American, it goes much beyond that: it's the continuity of the family. It's the family overcoming history. There's an oral tradition throughout these episodes that overwhelms whatever historical events are taking place. Alex Haley's confirmation of the family stories is a point of pride and validation that we all can feel.
The seven episodes released on seven discs are still powerful to watch. The mixture of TV and film actors (Henry Fonda, Richard Thomas, Olivia de Havilland, and Marc Singer are just a part of the 53 stars) makes a great mixture that really brings the characters to life. The production value is not what we would expect of an "event" these days. There are fancy set decorations and most of the film is produced on Hollywood back lots. The biggest change in the 30 years is the free and excessive use of the "N-word". In context, it completely fits the plot and in fact, Haley himself in a later episode admits that it doesn't hold any power over him because it's been used so many times. But with today's sensitivities, it's shocking to hear the likes of Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan using the word.
The Next Generations was presented over seven straight nights. While miniseries just don't air this way anymore, the watching experience of TV shows on DVD is very similar. I like the way seven separate 105-minute films tell the story of three generations over an 80-year period. There's a rhythm that's hard to find in today's episodic television. I wish there was a way today to adapt longer pieces of literature in a similar method.
The link of these stories is that of progress. Elizabeth tells her father Tom Harvey, "The scars from slavery aren't on your back, they're in your soul." It would take three generations and maybe even more to heal these scars. These are the stories of triumph. Two steps forward, one step back but always moving. Each generation builds upon the success of the others. Will Palmer would run a lumber company and his son, Simon, would use that success to go to college and become a professor. Alex would use his father's success to become a prolific writer. That's the story of America. The story of American families.
The DVD set is not full of many extras. There's a Behind-The-Scenes Documentary on the last disc that offers little insight. But with a story like this to tell, that is easily forgotten. A good story is more than enough.