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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Roots is the classic 1977 miniseries based on the best-selling book by Alex Haley, who spent 13 years tracing his genealogy back to 1750. In graphic and heartrending detail, the miniseries shows the brutality and misery of slavery, from people who were kidnapped from their villages in Africa to the slave auctions that separated families to the degrading conditions on plantations. Unsurprisingly, as an evocation of the cultural attitudes of the 18th and 19th centuries, the "N" word is frequently used, and white characters frequently discuss African-Americans in derogatory terms; but the dignity of Kunta Kinte and his descendants throughout the miniseries shines as a contrast to such degradation and offers hope in a series of seemingly hopeless situations. Obviously, the racism, profanity, and violence are meant to bring into clear focus the horror of those times. Make no mistake: Roots is absolutely crucial and necessary viewing for any American seeking to understand her or his history, the lessons to be learned from that history, its effects on those who lived it, and the resonance we feel today from the events chronicled within it.
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What's the story?
In the mid-18th century, Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton) is a 15-year-old living in West Africa, on the verge of manhood and becoming a Mandinka warrior. While leaving his village to find a tree to make a drum, he's kidnapped by trappers, who take him to a slave ship. On the ship, he faces the first of a great many indignities, culminating in being sold to work on a plantation in Virginia. ROOTS chronicles Kinte's life, as well as the lives of his children and grandchildren, for the next 130 years, as they live under the brutal oppression and misery of slavery and all the racism that slavery engenders. And yet, through all the horrors that Kinte's descendants experience, they never forget where they came from, who they are, and what freedom means, with Kinte's daughter Kizzy passing this down to her son, Chicken George (Ben Vereen), who in turn passes the message of freedom and tradition to his children.
Is it any good?
This iconic miniseries brings American history to life in ways that history textbooks so often fail to do. The horror, degradation, and violence of slavery are brought into painfully clear focus, so viewers experience the pain that Alex Haley's ancestors felt. By doing so, it becomes the pain of a nation, the reverberations of which we still feel to this day. But, beyond all this brutality, Roots offers hope in the form of an indomitable human spirit, passed from generation to generation, as the story of a people who never forgot their African home and whose culture somehow transcends so much suffering.
For families curious about where we were and how we got here, Roots is essential viewing. It was a best-selling book and a highly regarded miniseries when it was first broadcast in 1977, and it has stood the test of time. This miniseries should still inspire discussion among families about history, genealogy, and the society in which we live.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the violence, horror, and degradation of slavery was presented in Roots. Was it too much or not enough?
Do you think the violence and profanity shown and spoken here was necessary to showing the realities of slavery? Why, or why not? Does the fact that the violence is in a historical context make it more (or less) tolerable?
In what ways did Roots bring history to life for you? Why is it important to learn about the past?
- In theaters: January 23, 1977
- On DVD or streaming: August 30, 2011
- Cast: LeVar Burton, Cicely Tyson, Ben Vereen
- Director: David Greene
- Studio: Warner Home Video
- Genre: Classic
- Topics: History
- Character strengths: Compassion, Courage, Integrity, Perseverance
- Run time: 573 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Awards/Honors: Golden Globe
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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