“Roots 2016” Chicken George: Slavery, Cockfighting Sports, Freedom

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Veganism, like other religions, is slavery and tyranny.
Slavery of non-vegans.
Tyranny against non-vegans.
Criminalization of non-vegans.

Freedom Now.
Human Rights Now.
Legalize Liberty.
Legalize Cockfighting.

– Gameness til the End

PS

Part 1: The Birth of Kunta Kinte
Part 2: The Only Thing That Is Greater Than You
Part 3: Dueling Grounds
Part 4: Family Reunion

PPS

Roots (2016 miniseries) is an upcoming American miniseries and a remake of Roots.

Roots (miniseries) is an American television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family; the series first aired, on ABC-TV, in 1977. Roots received 37 Emmy Award nominations and won nine. It won also a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. It received unprecedented Nielsen ratings for the finale, which still holds a record as the third highest rated episode for any type of television series, and the second most watched overall series finale in U.S. television history. It was produced on a budget of $6.6 million. The series introduced LeVar Burton in the role of Kunta Kinte.

A sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, first aired in 1979, and a second sequel, Roots: The Gift, a Christmas TV movie, starring Burton and Louis Gossett Jr. first aired in 1988. A related film, Alex Haley’s Queen, is based on the life of Queen Jackson Haley, who was Alex Haley’s paternal grandmother.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an international activist movement, originating in the African-American community, that campaigns against violence toward black people. BLM regularly organizes protests around the deaths of black people in killings by law enforcement officers, and broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system.

In 2013, the movement began with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. Black Lives Matter became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African Americans: Michael Brown, resulting in protests and unrest in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York City.

Since the Ferguson protests, participants in the movement have demonstrated against the deaths of numerous other African Americans by police actions or while in police custody, including those of Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and Freddie Gray. In the Summer of 2015, Black Lives Matter began to publicly challenge politicians—including politicians in the 2016 United States presidential election—to state their positions on BLM issues. The overall Black Lives Matter movement, however, is a decentralized network and has no formal hierarchy or structure.

Roots Recap

Part 1: The Birth of Kunta Kinte

By Steven Boone
May 31, 2016 12:23 p.m.
Vulture

 Forest Whitaker as Fiddler, Malachi Kirby as Kunta. Steve Dietl/History Channel

The new Roots is ambitious, fast, and furious. If only it had the patience to tell its story rather than sell it harder than an auction-block trader.

This mini-series begins with the voice of Laurence Fishburne, as Roots author Alex Haley, situating us in the world of young Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), his distant ancestor from Juffure, West Africa. Kunta is born in tense times. Thorny new elements surround the iconic scene where newborn Kunta’s father holds him above his head, presenting him to the night sky — to Allah, in effect — as “the only thing greater than yourself.” In the blockbuster 1977 adaptation, LeVar Burton’s famously kind eyes and lovably gentle presence made Kunta’s eventual abduction and enslavement effortlessly heartbreaking. Kirby, too, has kind eyes, but they are set in the chiseled face of a warrior. The new Roots takes great pains to flesh out a more complex, less idyllic Juffure society than the one in the ’77 version, and its Kunta is made to match. Juffure is a bustling world of tribal politics, commerce (with slave trading as both the spoils of war and a way for the unscrupulous to turn a fast buck), Islam, and education (Kunta dreams of leaving his village to study at university). Kunta looks like the product of his times: noble and reasoned, but ready for a fight if need be.

Trained hard by Mandinka warriors, Kunta is shaping up to be the reflection of his equally tough, proud father, who wants him to stay in the village to carry on Mandinka traditions. Kunta wants only to run off with Jinna (Simona Brown), a sweet girl who was intended for another young man. The rivalry between suitors sets off a chain of events that leads to tragedy. Since his rival’s family is involved in the slave trade, capturing and selling Kunta and Jinna to English slavers becomes a quick and dirty way to even the score.

What Kunta, Jinna, and dozens of others endure on the slave ship is a hell that American audiences have become reacquainted with recently through Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. In that film, a riverboat loaded down with slaves traveling within the continental U.S. evoked the larger horror of the transatlantic slave trade. In Roots, we get the genuine article — or at least what its makers hope will overwhelm us as such. There’s rape, torture, severed heads on pikes, stabbings, and death by point-blank cannon fire. Throughout, Kunta and his fellow captives seize every opportunity to resist. That resistance comes at a bloody cost.

By this point, the action has been almost non-stop. It began with Kunta’s father defending innocents against local slavers, then proceeded through Kunta’s running, horseback-riding, and spear-throwing coming of age. (We are also treated to a bracing narrative fake out: What initially looks like Kunta’s fated abduction by slavers is actually his initiation into the warrior camp.) Even the lulls between action set pieces are edited as if a fire were raging just out of frame. Director Phillip Noyce is a veteran journeyman, who started out in the Australian New Wave before a ’90s run as a Hollywood genre craftsman (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector). He then returned to Australia to make Rabbit-Proof Fence, the film that probably best qualified him to take on Roots. That tale of “half-caste” Aborigine children, who were torn from their mothers by racist Australian authorities, had a patient way of settling into its story that this episode lacks.

The new Roots devotes a lot of time relating how the Kinte clan is a strong, proud, intelligent line of fighters, connected across time and the seas by a prevailing spirit of resistance. These are beautiful sentiments, but the mechanical rhythms, hectic pace, and shrill pitch of storytelling render them hollow. In that sense, neo-Roots is state-of-the-art storytelling in 2016 — a procession of moments and plot information flung our way in the hope of overwhelming us. As with so many modern “epics,” the effect is more exhausting than enveloping.

After the failed slave ship insurrection (a departure from Haley’s book and the ’77 miniseries), the episode follows the classic Haley story line faithfully enough, just fleshing it out with finer historical detail and thunderous flashbacks meant to preserve a sense of continuity. Kunta settles uncomfortably into the Waller plantation, where he befriends Fiddler (Forest Whitaker, inheriting the devastating Louis Gossett Jr. role), the aging house slave most trusted by John Waller (James Purefoy) and his wife, Elizabeth (Katie McGuinness).

Ultimately, Kunta will be broken, forced to renounce his true name and adopt the one Mrs. Waller fancies, Toby, but this time around it takes a lot more doing. Kunta doesn’t even make the slightest pretense of fearing his masters — he only fears the guns in their hands — which makes him a problem for Fiddler and a mortal enemy of the plantation overseer, Connelly (Tony Curran). Fiddler helps Kunta escape, as much to get himself out of the hot seat as to savor the idea of someone actually getting a taste of liberty. By the time Connelly captures Kunta and a slave patroller drags him back to the Waller estate, his presence has torn at the seams of many barely maintained façades, from Fiddler’s jovial politicking to Master Waller’s seemingly harmonious relationship with his wife and more prosperous brother, William (Matthew Goode). (A lovely ancestral song that weaves throughout the mini-series, passed down from Kunta’s father to Kunta and beyond, here finds its way into Fiddler’s string repertoire, stirring up … something between Mrs. Waller and her brother-in-law.)

Kunta’s beating and breaking was the startling moment that seized 140 million American viewers in 1977. It was a starkly theatrical confession of America’s capital crime. Between it and the new version stand 39 years of increasingly hyperrealistic treatments of violence in pop culture, right on up to the savage whipping of slave girl Patsey in 2014’s 12 Years a Slave. Kunta’s beating shares McQueen’s emphasis on how the body breaks down during a whipping. In other words, it misses the point: With every lash of whip and drop of blood, the new Roots insists that this is what it takes to get you to feel the horror, the heartbreak of American slavery, devoting an agonizing stretch of screentime that it somehow couldn’t afford to lavish on scenes of Kunta’s life prior to abduction, or in the stray everyday moments between brutalities, both of which are numerous but fleeting, rendered in bright, generic, and unimaginative tones. Unlike Patsey, a classically tragic figure from history whose fate is unknown, Kunta is a legend of resilience. Yet they are both defined by the beatings they can take, rather than imagined as vast and finely wrought humans for whom we might develop concern beyond awe or pity.

The actors in this mini-series are blameless, and they are the reason to keep watching. Although Kirby’s investment in the character of Kunta can’t overcome the show’s programmatic delivery, it does make him interesting to watch. He is a bright new star. Forest Whitaker’s Fiddler is a portrait in black survival and self-loathing, creating moments of queasy tension between him and his masters. The latter, played by a raft of solid British actors, generally resist the tendency to play Dastardly Southern Racist tropes, instead going for cold and clueless self-absorption: In one scene, Mrs. Waller’s heartbreak and anger when Fiddler fails to immediately relay an order to Kunta illustrates a victim mentality peculiar to the absurdly privileged.

Tony Curran’s Connelly immediately enters the pantheon of white racist characters, so passionate and determined at his job of breaking slaves that he almost seems heroic, like an especially demanding football coach who just wants to win. (Here, “win” generally means submit or die.) He doesn’t want to whip Toby/Kunta any longer than necessary and takes no joy in tracking down runaway plantation “property.” “If only these niggers would accept their lower primate status…” his perpetual grimace seems to say.

I’m told that this Roots plays its talented performers so cheap and runs so artificially fast through its rich source material because audiences would not sit still for something less tweetable from moment to moment; that an advertiser-dependent cable network like the History Channel can’t roll the dice on more visionary, exploratory storytelling of the HBO variety. This makes a certain kind of sense in the year of a skin-deep Nina Simone movie and a Miles Davis biopic rewritten to emphasize a white character who’d improve its “overseas” appeal. Though it’s a far cry from Kunta and Fiddler’s plight, I suppose we also must come to terms with a reality that doesn’t seem apt to change anytime soon.

Part 2: The Only Thing That Is Greater Than You

By Steven Boone
May 31, 2016 11:18 p.m.
Vulture

 Forest Whitaker as Fiddler. Steve Dietl/History Channel

“Part Two” of Roots picks up a decade into Kunta Kinte’s captivity, with Kunta (Malachi Kirby) on the run from the Waller plantation. Alex Haley (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) narrates that Kunta has spent the entire ten years plotting and attempting escapes.

On this particular attempt, he runs into British soldiers just as overseer Connelly (Tony Curran) has him in his rifle sight. “Tooooby,” Connelly calls out in slurry slow motion. Kunta turns and rushes up to Connelly before he can fire a shot, pinning him to the ground — “My name is Kunta Kinte!” — just as he uses the rifle to choke him to death. British soldiers order him to drop the weapon. He complies and tells them that, as a Mandinka warrior, he will gladly fight for the British.

The soldiers take him to a camp full of other defectors and recruits, including Native Americans. “You’re free,” a slave says to a Native American at the campfire. “Why do you fight?” “Free to watch the white man steal my land,” replies the Native American. (That pretty much sets the didactic tone of the first quarter of this episode.) He then reveals some English double-dealing: “The English say white man who fights for King George can keep his slaves.” Kunta befriends Carlton, a young slave who had an eye put out for crying when his mother and sisters were sold off. Gearing up for a battle, the British offer their black and Native fighters pikes, but no guns. It is clear that they are meant to be mere cannon fodder. When Kunta asks a superior if the British will be marching with him and his fellow recruits, the Scottish accented captain says that would be imprudent. Kunta replies, “Then may we have your gun?”

In the nighttime battle, Kunta and the men under his unofficial leadership refuse to advance unless given guns, but they move grudgingly when told that execution is their only alternative. They cross the bridge right into a deluge of American rifle fire. In the chaos, Kunta and Carlton escape into the swamps. Carlton is killed; Kunta escapes by canoe. He paddles by a bunch of slaves moving barrels on the shore, who upon seeing him cover the sound of his paddling by singing work songs, thus keeping their overseer unawares in the distance.

When Kunta finally comes ashore, slave patrollers are waiting for him and greet him as “Toby.” They mock the garment the British gave him, which is inscribed with “Liberty to slaves.” The patrollers tie Kunta to a tree and chop off half of his left foot with an axe. After a frenetic post-traumatic dream that flits through several memories of his family in Africa and various tortures, he wakes up to the angelic face of Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a slave on Dr. Waller’s farm. Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) reunites with Kunta and explains that they’ve both been sold to Dr. Waller (Matthew Goode) to offset the debts of his brother, John Waller (James Purefoy). Dr. Waller’s overseer, Spalding (Dylan Kenin), visits Kunta in the night to threaten him. He is sure that the rumors about Kunta having killed Connelly are true, so he’ll be watching — and he jams a rifle butt into Kunta’s bandaged foot to drive the point home. Belle rushes in to assure the overseer that she’s keeping an eye on Kunta, that she won’t let him escape.

The next day, Belle brings Kunta a change of clothes, but he is too despondent to co-operate. She quickly chastises him for apparently giving up on life. What about the men, women, and children who’ve endured worse, yet carried on regardless? Fiddler remains at Kunta’s bedside, brooding before suddenly snatching him out of the bed and dragging him to a fence outside the slave quarters. Kunta screams in agony the whole way. Fiddler leaves him in a pen with the restless horse. “Your ornery Mandinka ways startin’ to rub off on me,” Fiddler tells him. “So I’m going to have to leave you here and you going to get your own self up.” He leaves Kunta laid out, vulnerable to being trampled by the horse. Kunta has a flashback to his training in the Mandinka camp. He slowly, painfully gets back on his feet. “I am Kunta Kinte!” he says, the mentors from his past echoing in his mind. Belle continues caring for Kunta, and he finally acknowledges her with a sheepish thank you.

Daytime. When a horse breaks loose from the stable, Kunta manages to calm it down using the empathy he was taught in his warrior training. He calmly mounts the horse and rides it over to Dr. Waller, who is visibly impressed. Spalding glowers with envy as, at Belle’s suggestion, Waller promotes Kunta to carriage driver and horse trainer. When Waller departs and Spalding takes the horse away, Belle and Fiddler exchange triumphant grins while Kunta remains ambivalent. He knows it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

That night, Spalding shows Kunta the previous carriage driver hanging from a tree. “He was a quiet one like you, all the while hatching a devious plan,” Spalding says, before he contemplates hanging Kunta as a preemptive measure. Belle frantically intervenes, reminding Spalding that Master Waller expects him to be ready at any moment to drive him to attend his sister-in-law’s imminent childbirth. Spalding lets him go. After the overseer is out of sight, Belle bursts into tears staring up at the hanging corpse.

Daylight. Kunta drives Dr. Waller to a peculiar rendezvous with his sister-in-law, Elizabeth (Katie McGuinness). Later, Kunta and the doctor pass a gathering of white people, as they celebrate victory in the Revolutionary War. “Long live freedom!” Dr. Waller shouts from atop the coach.

Right on its heels is a scene of Fiddler, Kunta, Belle and other slaves mocking this freedom as a minor event in their lives. Hunter and Belle get into an argument about his belief in “African ghosts,” as she calls them. He corrects her: They are not ghosts. They are his people, speaking to him from across the ocean.

Dr. Waller delivers a field hand’s baby, chastising Spalding for disobeying his order to not put her to work while pregnant. He says he’ll take the cost of losing the mother out of Spalding’s wages, and names the newborn boy Noah. Belle and Kunta pray over Noah’s mother, who lies dead in the field. Kunta consoles Belle, who falls into his arms sobbing. After an awkwardly charming scene in which Kunta fumbles a marriage proposal to Belle, there’s an equally charming wedding, tinged with tension from the ever-present overseer circling in the background. Presided by Fiddler, the ceremony sparks a friendly debate over whether the tradition of jumping the broom actually originated in Africa.

The festivities are broken up by a slave from Master Waller’s plantation — it’s time for Kunta to drive Dr. Waller to tend to his brother’s wife. At John’s plantation, the good doctor cradles the newborn while John barely gives the newborn an aloof glance, still poring over some documents. On the return home, Kunta innocently (or not so innocently) remarks on Dr. Waller’s enthusiasm about the birth: “Yes, I’ll bet you love that child as if she were your own.” Dr. Waller becomes enraged and strikes Kunta for insulting his character. Back at his cabin, Kunta explodes, outraged that Waller hit him. “At least we’re together — the three of us,” Belle pleads, gesturing at her abdomen. Belle confesses to having had and lost children and a husband in the past. She fears losing yet again. Kunta vows to protect their child. “He will be a warrior,” he promises.

After Belle gives birth to a girl, Fiddler begins to play Kunta’s mother’s song when a party of slave patrollers interrupt and threaten them. Fiddler distracts the group by insisting that they call him by his real name, Henry, giving Kunta time to run off with his daughter while he fights the patrollers to the death.

Kunta kills the one remaining patroller before discovering Fiddler’s dead body. He then rushes home, determined to escape with Belle and the baby, but she convinces him that capture would be inevitable with a crying newborn in tow. Kunta has a breakdown while telling Belle that the patrollers killed Fiddler. He pulls himself together, names their baby Kizzy, and holds her up to the heavens the way his father did when he was born.

From there, the story jumps several years ahead as a young Kizzy (Saniyya Sidney) and Master Wallace’s daughter, Missy (Genevieve Hannelius), grow to be close friends. Master Waller catches Missy teaching Kizzy to read, but Kunta intercepts him, directing Waller’s rage away from his daughter. The girls watch a tense exchange between Waller and Kunta with tears in their eyes.

Jumping ahead nine more years, the remainder of the episode centers on Kunta imparting his Mandinka warrior training to teenage Kizzy (Emyri Crutchfield). Meanwhile, Dr. Waller anticipates matching Kizzy up with Noah for “breeding,” a prospect Kunta works hard to postpone. However, Noah attempts to escape during a violent storm, and is shot down while attempting to flee. After discovering a road pass Kizzy forged to help him escape, Dr. Waller decides to sell her off.

The selling of Kizzy was one of the 1977 miniseries’ most explosively well-directed scenes, and so it is here as well. Kizzy ends up at the farm of Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in North Carolina. Young Master Lea greets her by raping her in a barn. His wife observes quietly from outside.

After she gives birth to his son, named George after Lea’s father, Kizzy contemplates suicide by drowning with the baby in her arms. Voices of past and present lives — Kunta, Belle, Noah, her grandparents — call her back to life. She determines to tell the child all she knows of their heritage, and so she raises the baby up to the sky in the manner of her father and grandfather.

This installment starts off in such a clunky, baldly didactic fashion that its relative subtleties later on are a nice surprise. Once Corinealdi enters the picture, she elevates and intensifies every scene, as does as Crutchfield’s teenage Kizzy. “Part Two” introduces much more silent interplay between Kunta, Fiddler, and Belle, though the musical score and sledgehammer sound design continue to tell us exactly which capital-letter emotions to feel at every turn, ultimately blunting those delicate edges. Nevertheless, director Mario Van Peebles allows enough air around certain telling moments, as when Kunta turns a simple compliment from Fiddler into a summation of their predicament. It’s an exchange worthy of August Wilson:

Fiddler: You got yourself a beautiful baby girl and a beautiful wife.
Kunta: And master got us all.

Correction: A previous version of this recap claimed that Carlton lost his eye for looking at a white woman. He lost his eye as punishment for crying when his mother and sisters were sold.

Part 3: Dueling Grounds

By Steven Boone
June 1, 2016 11:20 p.m.
Vulture

Regé-Jean Page as George, Erica Tazel as Matilda, James Moses Black as Marcellus, Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy. Photo: History Channel

“Part Three” suffers from the same heavy-handedness and shallow imagination of previous Roots installments, but it manages some stirring moments, thanks to a psychologically acute script and subtle performances by Anika Noni Rose and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

The episode opens with Kizzy, now played by Rose, staring listlessly at the ceiling, with Tom Lea (Myers) on top of her. After he’s done his business, she cleans herself up and offers a quiet vow to her father to survive, to not let him down, touching a string of beads he gave her that are hanging near the door.

Kizzy’s son George, now a chubby preteen, studies some chickens in a cage while their caretaker, Mingo (Chad L. Coleman), runs them off with threats. Mingo, a mean, hulking slave, trains these birds to fight in cockfighting contests for cash. Lea drags George along to one of these fights against Kizzy’s insistence that Mingo doesn’t like children. Mingo don’t like nobody. The scene around the cockfight ring is pure chaos; George watches with wide eyes, quickly getting caught up in the suspense of the event. When Lea and Mingo’s bird wins the fight, he is just as ecstatic as his master. After the fight, George learns a new disinfection technique when Mingo orders him to pee on the bird’s wounds.

Kizzy, meanwhile, is secretly teaching Lea’s wife, Tricia (Shannon Lucio), to read. They quickly hide the evidence when Lea storms in with George, still triumphant after the cockfight. He invites George to keep working with him and Mingo, rather than “get sunburnt out in them fields.”

Lizzy and Tricia protest that George is too young to work with Mingo, which would entail living with him out in the barn. “What do you know about children, anyway,” Lea snaps at his wife, “Since you can’t have any.”

Tom Lea is a real piece of work. Of poor Irish heritage, he draws a lot of his bitterness from the prosperous neighboring farmer, who looks down on hardscrabble, new-money types. Rhys-Meyers plays him as a tightly wound coil of insecurities. When George returns from work to his mother’s cabin, bragging about how much Lea and other whites appreciate his and Mingo’s work, Kizzy sets him straight: “[Lea] don’t know how to like anybody!”

From there, the story jumps ahead several years. “Chicken” George is now a fast-talking, charismatic teenager (played by Regé-Jean Page). When he’s not raising chickens or driving Master Lea around town, he pursues Matilda (Erica Tazel), the daughter of Preacher Lyons (James Moses Black). George’s friendship with Mingo deepens in spite of the latter’s paranoia: “I trust my birds and no one else.”

On a losing streak at the cockfights, Lea takes his frustration out on Mingo and George. He is desperate to move up in local society — which to his mind means getting out of farming and banking everything on the birds. George volunteers a bird he personally trained without Mingo’s knowledge. They vie for Lea’s waning trust. Lea decides to go with George.

“Part Three” soon becomes a study in slave economics, full of subtext related to what Kanye West would call the contemporary “new slaves.” George befriends a free black man named Marcellus (Michael James Shaw), who fights his own chickens. Marcellus tells him, “By the way you carry yourself, I thought you were free, too.” George is equally enthralled and disturbed.

Using his skills as a kind of minstrel, George drums up excitement over his fighting bird by comically singing its praises to a crowd of betters. This fattens the purse, so when George’s bird beats the one trained by Marcellus, he and Lea head home with a whole lot of money. Despite losing, Marcellus happily becomes a mentor to George.

George’s ambition — along with the constant social calculations he performs to serve it — drive the narrative for the rest of this episode. He foresees a day when he’ll have saved enough money to purchase his, his mother’s, and Matilda’s freedom.

However, a series of encounters both fortuitous and tragic develop:

  • Matilda’s father meets Kizzy, touching off a debate about “the white man’s religion.”
  • Marcellus meets Kizzy at a gathering, and their chemistry is instantaneous.
  • At the same gathering, Lea is forced to sit at the table with his nemesis, William Byrd (Brett Rice). Lea plays nice until a steady barrage of insults provokes him to slap Byrd and threaten him with a knife. Byrd demands satisfaction, and a pistol duel ensues.
  • Marcellus tells Kizzy that a cockfighting rival invited Lea to this dinner only to stir trouble between the Irishman and the aristocrat. (Earlier, Lea flatly refused to sell George to him.) “The thing about rich white men?” Marcellus says. “They’ll take ten steps at a tilt just to take one step straight to what they want.”

The dinner scene and the duel are two of the most carefully modulated and suspenseful scenes in “Part Three,” the most patiently written, directed, and edited episode so far. Everyone’s stake in the outcome, especially Lizzy’s and George’s, is never out of sight. The total, unforced enmity between Lea and his rival builds to a much more powerful, believable confrontation than the attempted slave-ship rebellion in episode one. Even the drawn out grotesquery of the duel, with each man returning fire after taking a mutilating bullet wound and then taking up swords, makes an astonishing point: This is the grisly essence of so-called gentlemen and their “civilized” tradition.

With George coaching at his side, Lea wins the duel. While Lea recovers in bed, George seizes the opportunity to press him about buying his freedom: He promises to make Lea “damn dirty rich” if his master will guarantee him freedom after they’ve conquered the cockfighting game. It’s a deal.

George marries Matilda, and Lea seethes over the sight of Marcellus and Kizzy dancing at the celebration. Perhaps as a way to flex his muscles, Lea gets George to agree to name his eventual firstborn child Tom. Kizzy later chastises George for dishonoring the memory of her father by accepting the name.

Lea doesn’t stop there. He busts into Kizzy’s cabin as she lays in post-coital bliss with Marcellus. Marcellus throws Lea off by asking to buy Kizzy outright for $2,000. Lea’s financial straits overcome his jealousy — for the moment, at least.

That night Lea corners Kizzy and attempts to rape her, furious that she’d “choose that nigger who looks down on me.” He insists her place is on the farm, “with the people who love you!” She puts a knife near his throat and makes her intentions clear: Leaving her family alone with him is not an option. She will stay to protect her descendants. With that, she hitches up her dress and asks that he “be quick about it.”

And so, Marcellus leaves the county alone, after Kizzy’s tearful good-bye. She collapses onto the ground, calling out to Kunta Kinte in his native tongue.

Three years later, we find George, Mingo, and Master Lea swept up in living history. While traveling on cockfighting business, they stumble upon a party of vigilantes hunting for Nat Turner, the leader of the Southampton slave revolt of 1831. Mingo gets beaten unconscious. The militiamen warn Lea to turn back to his own farm, which might already be overrun by rebel slaves.

Instead, the farm has been ransacked and a barn set aflame by white militia. George searches day and night for his family, finally finding Kizzy deep in the woods. She takes him to a camp where Matilda, his babies, and several plantation slaves are hiding.

Finding Mingo dead upon their return from the woods, George and Kizzy each launch into baldly written theatrical monologues. George confesses to having long known that Master Lea is his father and vows to kill him. Kizzy pleads with George to choose the path that her father would want: to live under one apparent dishonor, rather than the higher dishonor of not carrying the family line forward beyond the horrific present. In Rose’s hands, Kizzy’s monologue becomes an aria, rising just above the din of a sappy musical score.

Mingo, meanwhile, has posthumously left George the gift of a lifetime. Hiding in a bucket of chicken feed, he finds a satchel of coins, likely Mingo’s life savings.

George and Matilda have another son, finally agreeing to name him Tom to appease Master Lea. And, like his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, George takes the newborn out to a clearing at night to perform the ritual handed down from Kunta Kinte’s village.

Four years later, Master Lea and George are still in business, if more at odds than ever. They travel to a cockfight in North Carolina, where Lea’s old dueling rival coaxes him to wager $10,000 on a fight. This battle will either cost Lea his farm or finally move him into the upper class. George demands that Lea guarantee his freedom if they win.

Their bird wins, but Lea’s compulsive gambling manages to botch the victory in a way almost too sad to report. Even sadder is the spectacle of Chicken George, seen from a God’s-eye high angle, dancing in the fighting ring with a feather in his cap after the initial win, shouting, “I’m free!”

The climax of each Roots chapter is traditionally devastating, and that has held true for this new mini-series as well. It will never not be traumatic to watch a loving family get torn apart. George’s dreams, so carefully devised and negotiated across a lifetime, get scattered on the wind, and he gets sent to England in the pocket of some shady hustlers.

Part 4: Family Reunion

By Steven Boone
June 3, 2016 3:59 p.m.
Vulture

Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy. Photo: History Channel

“Part Four” opens 20 years after Chicken George’s departure to England. He returns to Tom Lea’s farm to find it abandoned and in ruins. Miss Malizy (Carol Sutton), an elder slave who had always been by Kizzy’s side, sits in a daze on the plantation grounds. She is unable to tell him where his family has gone but offers, “I know where your mom is.”

Miss Malizy takes him to Kizzy’s grave site, marked only by a small slab of stone with a “k” scratched into it. George (Regé-Jean Page) breaks down upon learning that Kizzy died of an illness that started with a pain in her side. He’s astonished to learn that Master Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is still alive, and he goes to the big house to confront him. Lea is now a broken, paranoid old man, sitting among rats and stray chickens. He initially fires a shot at George, until he manages to convince Lea that he is his son. Lea launches into an angry, self-pitying, sentimental rant. He reveals that George’s wife and children were sold off to a North Carolina plantation, which sends George into a rage. Lea had promised to free his family.

On the Murray plantation in North Carolina, Matilda (Erica Tazel) sees her son Tom (Sedale Threatt Jr.) off as he heads out on errands. “You just get home safe,” she says. “It only takes one crazy redneck and Master’s road papers don’t mean nothing.” On his rounds as a blacksmith, Tom visits a free black man who is harboring a fugitive slave named Virgil (Donald Watkins). The free man says he will be moving out of state soon and asks Tom to look after Virgil. Tom grudgingly hides Virgil in his wagon, but must leave him at a roadside when patrollers approach.

George arrives at the Murray plantation, instantly confronted by an overseer and Master Murray’s son Frederick (Lane Garrison), who disarm him, suspecting this “nigger in fancy clothes” of being an abolitionist. He assures them that he is a free man who has come to see his wife. Slaves observing the scene from a distance have the most bitterly funny exchange of the series:

Young slave: You know that ol’ boy?
Old slave: No … he remind me of a man about to die.

The slaves turn out to be two of George’s children. After giddy reunion with Matilda — whom Frederick forced to wait all day before seeing her husband — George also reunites with his boys, then meets their partners and offspring. He learns that three of his children were sold off only weeks after he was sent to England. He vows to never leave his family again.

This rest of Roots’ final installment proceeds down parallel tracks: The whites debate and prepare for secession from the Union, while George compares notes on survival with Matilda and his offspring. Tom is the least interested in these lessons, as he believes George abandoned them all. George’s son overhears Frederick plotting with his lawyer to exploit a loophole in slave laws, whereby after 90 days in the state, his freedom would be rendered void.

Even with the knowledge of Frederick’s plan, George insists on staying: “I ain’t afraid of that boy.” But Matilda convinces him to leave. He has a far greater chance of helping his family as a free man.

George leaves Matilda with the beads handed down from his grandfather, Kunta Kinte. On the road north, George meets Cyrus (T.I.), a sly young slave posing as a free man. From there, the plot thickens into an espionage saga worthy of late Spielberg (though “Part Four” gets by with one of his contemporaries, director Bruce Beresford). Frederick’s fiancée, Nancy (Anna Paquin), confides in George’s son Tom that she’s a spy for the North. Murray’s plantation is a hub for Southern munitions and war plans. Tom begs her not to involve him in this scheme. Frederick interrupts them, oblivious, before the conversation is settled.

The Murray plantation becomes a Confederate encampment as the South gears up for war. Frederick is now a major and Tom is responsible for shoeing every horse. After coming home one night to find Frederick’s men raping his wife, Tom’s decision is made for him: He will join Nancy’s fight. Charles, her “deaf-mute” carriage driver, is also a spy — and he recruits Tom to intercept a Confederate officer en route to Georgia with plans for a new arsenal. Charles and Tom ambush the officers party on the road, but Frederick catches Charles on his way to the Union line.

With the plot exposed, Frederick has Nancy and Charles hanged on the front lawn. George and Cyrus, who proves himself braver and crazier than his peers, escape a battle at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, after Confederate soldiers execute every surrendering black soldier in sight. Today, this atrocity is known as the Fort Pillow Massacre.

We jump to 1865. The slaves of the Murray Plantation wake up to find all the white people gone. A young slave woman rushes up with news: General Robert E. Lee has retreated. The war is ending. A series of reunions and reconciliations follow, which emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of this new Roots as a whole. Matilda’s fervent prayer upon hearing the news of emancipation, for example, is heavenly in Tazel’s hands. The mini-series traditionally undercuts such moments with crude editing and sentimental scoring that might as well have come from a software preset. The effect is like a cool drink of sugary saltwater.

Cyrus ends up at the Murray Plantation, where he inform George’s family that he last saw his friend heading off with a party of armed men to defend newly freed slaves against Confederate bushwhackers. Matilda sends Tom to look for his father and, guided by the spirit of Kunta Kinte, he eventually finds him in Tennessee, wounded after a successful battle against the bushwhackers.

Chicken George’s return to his family is an effortlessly powerful moment, one of the many times across the mini-series that I, an African-American with parents from the South, shed a tear. Credit both the material and the actors. However, it seems reasonable that such a classic, soulful, vital American narrative would have much finer direction than it gets here. Even at its finest, in “Part Three” directed by Thomas Carter, a pall of mediocrity hangs over notes that should soar rather than land on our heads.

Roots concludes with Alex Haley (Laurence Fishburne) getting up from his writing desk to take a spiritual journey to his ancestors. It’s a sweet little curtain call for the cast, set against historical antebellum photographs. In a mini-series that turned moments of poetry into blunt prose, at least this Kodak moment is a refreshingly gentle bit of closure.




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