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Television: Viewpoint: Middlebrow Mandingo

3 minute read
Richard Schickel

Roots, Alex Haley’s bestselling whatzit (not quite a novel, it is not quite history either) has come to television. Its unprecedented twelve-hour, eight-nights-in-a-row run begins on ABC Sunday, Jan. 23. It turns out to be a work of some historical interest, though surely not in the way its creators intended.

The first four hours, which bring Kunta Kinte, Haley’s own great-great-great-great-great-grandfather from a happy childhood in an African village to a flogging in the slave quarters of a Virginia plantation, offer almost no new insights, factual or emotional, about the most terrible days of the black experience. Instead, there is a handy compendium of stale melodramatic conventions by which, since abolitionist days, popularizers have tried to comprehend a crime so monstrous that, like the Holocaust, it is beyond anyone’s ability to re-create in intelligent dramatic terms.

As always, the native tongue of the persecuted minority is rendered in English as fake-childish poetry. As always, slave-ship captains and plantation owners are shown as psychopathic hypocrites—consulting Scripture in one scene, condoning, even participating in violence and rape in the next. Naturally, a Simon Legree figure is always handy to do their dirty work, while highborn white ladies dither prettily in the background.

To be sure, Kunta Kinte is seen as a figure of unbending pride and courage, and morally it is fine to present an outsize, heroic character with whom black youths can identify. On the other hand, black males wearing their machismo on their sleeves—as many do in current films and TV shows—are really just variants on the old buck characters of early movies and even earlier plays.

Doubtlessly, all concerned with this enormous, expensively cast and heavily flacked “prestige” production were earnestly anxious to make a vivid, powerful statement about this central American historical drama. It was brave of them to try to do so in the unlikely precincts of prime-time commercial tele vision. It appears, however, that in their fervor not to be misunderstood, to be clearly on the side of the angels, they have set aside all common sense. In the one-third of their work available in advance to critics, not one sympathetic white character appears. Not a single black man of less than shining rectitude turns up either. This is dramatically vulgar and historically preposterous.

Indeed, this oversimplification is the first point attacked in a BBC-produced series, The Fight Against Slavery, now being syndicated around the U.S. on PBS. Covering the same time period and similar material (the rise and fall of slavery in England’s Caribbean colonies), it insists that slavery was a crime not merely against blacks but all humanity. Guilt must be shared by both races, since many slavers were Africans. More important, the series understands that the tragedy is so clear and bitter that it requires no melodramatic underscoring to hold the viewers’ emotions in thrall. Slavery is seen as a routine part of 18th century life, so that its cruelties and its sexual implications are smothered by the matter-of-fact acceptance of the institution as a logical extension of the private-property system. The uncomprehending, near universal callousness revealed is infinitely more horrifying than any leering whip wielder can ever be. The dulled inarticulateness of slavery’s victims is more terrible and moving than Kunta Kinte’s showy rebelliousness. The Fight Against Slavery is, in short, a mature and subtle work. Roots, alas, is rooted in the paperback mentality. It is Mandingo for middlebrows. Richard Schickel

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