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Marvin Chomsky, Jorn Erman, David Greene, Gilbert Morris
LeVar Burton, Cicely Tyson, Edward Asner, Ralph Waite, Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Reed, Georg Stanford Brown, John Amos
Writing Credits:
William Blinn, M. Charles Cohen, Alex Haley, Ernest Kinoy, James Lee

A dramatization of author Alex Haley's family line from ancestor Kunta Kinte's enslavement to his descendants' liberation.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
English Monaural
Latin Spanish Monaural
French Monaural
Italian Monaural
Latin Spanish
Supplements Subtitles:
Latin Spanish

Runtime: 587 min.
Price: $44.98
Release Date: 6/7/2016

• “Roots: One Year Later” Documentary
• “Crossing Over: How Roots Captivated an Entire Nation” Featurette
• “Connecting with the Past” Featurette
• “The Struggle to Make Roots” Featurette
• LeVar Burton Original Screen Test
• Alex Haley Interview
• “Roots: The American Story Continues” Featurette
• “Roots: The Cast Looks Back” Featurette
• 32-Page Book


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


Roots [Blu-Ray] (1977)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 13, 2016)

When it first aired in January 1977, Roots couldn’t claim to be the “first ever” mini-series, and it also wasn’t the one that established the format as a success. Rich Man, Poor Man emerged almost a year earlier when it debuted in February 1976, and it was a very popular program.

However, Roots remains the pinnacle of TV mini-series. 40 years after it first appeared, the nearly ten-hour program continues to be regarded as one of the most memorable and important events in TV history, and this Blu-ray release should help folks remember what an impact it had.

Roots offers no overall plot, as it covers many years in the lives of one family. We begin in Africa circa 1750 as Binta (Cicely Tyson) - the wife of Omoru (Thalmus Rasulala) - gives birth to their first child. Named Kunta Kinte, the program quickly leaps forward to 1765 where we start on a dual storyline.

We see events in Annapolis Maryland, where ship captain Thomas Davies (Ed Asner) reluctantly takes charge of slaving vessel the Lord Ligonier. Along with first mate Slater (Ralph Waite) he heads toward Gambia, where he’ll pick up a load of 170 newly-enslaved Africans.

While these events unfold, we meet 15-year-old Kunta (LeVar Burton) and see his family interactions. The main focus here revolves around his “Manhood Training”; he and other boys of the same age get trundled off into the wild to learn all the important aspects of being a Mandinka warrior. Kunta excels and soon returns to his village ready to take his place as a young man.

Unfortunately, this isn’t to be. While he seeks a piece of wood to make a drum for his younger brother, slavers capture Kunta and place him on the Lord Ligonier for the long voyage to America and servitude. There he meets up with one of his “Manhood Trainers” - the daunting and powerful Wrestler (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) - and they eventually attempt to stage a revolt against their shipboard oppressors.

This doesn’t succeed, and Kunta ultimately ends up in the possession of farmer John Reynolds (Lorne Greene). Reynolds’ trusted slave Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.) gets the job to tame the proud African who refuses to acknowledge his new slave name of “Toby” and who also plots to escape.

I’d better not cover the entire tale in such detail or I’ll never finish this review, but this description offers a glimpse of where Roots will go. Essentially it follows the first four generations of author Alex Haley’s family in America.

We begin with Kunta and follow him into adulthood; at that stage, John Amos plays the character. He marries Bell (Madge Sinclair), and we eventually watch his daughter Kizzy (Leslie Uggams), her son Chicken George (Ben Vereen), and finally his boy Tom (Georg Stanford Brown).

Starting with Kunta’s birth in 1750, the story goes over about 120 years as we finally conclude with the family’s freedom after the end of the Civil War. (A short coda follows the “roots” up through Haley, but those elements offer little more than a quick recap; they’d get further exploration a few years later in Roots: The Next Generations. Anyone who expects me to exploit the connection between LeVar Burton and the title of the sequel will leave disappointed - too easy!)

Those who weren’t around when Roots first aired can’t fathom what a huge hit it was. Since the TV universe is now so fragmented, we’ll likely never see another event that plops so many fannies in front of one program. There are simply too many choices now, as opposed to the period during which the three networks monopolized things.

I’m all for the additional options, but I must admit it’s kind of sad that we don’t have this form of unifying program anymore. Other than perhaps the Super Bowl, there’s really nothing that becomes quite such a national event, as even huge successes garner only a fraction of the mega-millions who viewed Roots.

But Roots was an absolute phenomenon when it aired. It set a series of ratings records for the eight nights it ran, and it remains one of the most-watched programs in history. It also sparked a fad related to family trees and discovering your own “roots”. Me, I took one look at my dad and said, “ehh, why bother?”

Many ambitious programs from the Seventies don’t hold up very well today, but that fate hasn’t befallen Roots. While the show has its ups and downs, it remains a rather compelling experience.

For me, the best segments took place during episodes one and two. Director David Greene nicely intercuts between the threat implied by the journey of the Lord Ligonier and the growth of young Kunta, and those pieces also include some of the series’ best acting. Burton is absolutely scintillating as Kunta, while Asner maintains a good level of balance for Davies.

The story still works well once Kunta reaches America and becomes a slave, largely due to the chemistry between Burton and Gossett. They fed off of each other nicely and helped make the relatively small part of Fiddler much more memorable than otherwise might have occurred.

The series goes downhill somewhat when we lose Burton and gain Amos. Even though Amos plays the adult Kunta/Toby, the character’s still supposed to be quite young when we first meet the new actor; he’s alleged to be in his mid-twenties at that time. Then in his mid-thirties, Amos simply can’t pull off a character a decade younger, and some of these scenes lose their impact due to this leap of logic.

Still, the sequences aren’t bad; they just fall short of the series’ earlier highs. Amos offers much better acting once he gets closer to his real age, and he’s not the only one with that problem.

Uggams first must play Kizzy as a teenager, and she looks absurd at that point. She feigns youthful exuberance and innocence, but the then-33-year-old actress just appears silly. She offers much stronger work once Kizzy matures; Uggams brings appropriate depth and power to those segments.

More successful as youngsters are Ben Vereen and Georg Stanford Brown. Granted, they don’t have the same disadvantages as Amos and Uggams. In addition to the inappropriateness of his casting as a 20-something, Amos suffered due to comparisons with Burton, and it was hard to reconcile the two personalities at times. Uggams didn’t have that problem, but she got stuck with extended screentime as a teen; Vereen and Brown were allowed to zoom into adulthood much more quickly.

Despite some quibbles, the acting in Roots seems quite good, especially considering the résumés offered by many of the performers. Roots includes an inordinate amount of TV folks, and many came from the world of sitcoms. Asner, Amos, Robert Reed, John Schuck, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs all had strong backgrounds in comedic fare, and many of the others mainly worked in musical variety settings; I don’t think many saw Vereen, Sandy Duncan or Burl Ives as the “usual suspects” for this kind of serious fare.

On the surface, the casting seems odd, but at least in regard to the white performers, I think it’s brilliant. The actors tend towards folks with previously positive character images. Robert “Mike Brady” Reed, Ed “Lou Grant” Asner, Ralph “Pa Walton” Waite, Lorne “Ben Cartwright” Greene, along with other sunny white people like Burl Ives, Sandy Duncan and Gary Collins, makes it a more daring enterprise. The presence of these performers creates a more challenging setting, as they subconsciously lead the audience to see the insidious nature of slavery since even nice people like these bought into it. It’s a masterstroke to put so many trusted actors in such unpleasant parts.

Roots was literally a once in a lifetime event. While a screening on home video lacks the sizzle associated with the original broadcast, the program continues to enchant after about 40 years. Roots offers a rich and memorable look at history through the eyes of one family, and it’s a terrific experience.

The Discs Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

Roots appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these Blu-ray Discs. While the program showed its age at times, for the most part I thought Roots provided a satisfying visual experience.

Sharpness generally seemed solid. Some minor softness interfered at times, but those moments appeared infrequent. As a whole, the program looked nicely delineated and well defined.

I saw no examples of moiré effects or jagged edges, and the presentation seemed to lack evidence of edge haloes. Source flaws barely appeared; I noticed rare spots or specks, but given the length of the program, these created no distractions.

Colors came across as reasonably bright and accurate. At times the hues appeared somewhat flat or faded, but those occasions didn’t occur frequently. For the most part, the tones seemed solid and vibrant.

Black levels varied a little but they usually stayed nicely deep and dense, while shadow detail showed fair consistency. Some low-light shots - such as those in the hold of the Lord Ligonier - appeared very clear and appropriately defined, but others seemed a little too opaque and thick. The former situation dominated, however, and these concerns didn’t last long. Ultimately, Roots offered a positive image that held up well after 40 years.

I also felt reasonably pleased with the DTS-HD MA monaural soundtrack of Roots. Audio quality seemed a little thin at times, but the mix usually worked fine. Dialogue appeared reasonably natural, though speech tended to be somewhat flat on occasion. Still, I heard no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess, and the lines always appeared distinct.

Effects lacked great range or vividness, but they seemed to represent the elements acceptably well, and they showed no distortion or other problems in that domain. Music was similarly average, though the score did present some modest bass response at times. Overall, the soundtrack of Roots did nothing to elevate the material, but it didn’t harm it either, and it was fine given its age and origins.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the ”30th Anniversary Edition" DVD? Audio seemed a little more dynamic, though not by much, as there’s only so much that could be achieved with 40-year-old material created for a TV show.

Visuals offered more obvious improvements, though. The Blu-ray looked better defined, more vivid and notably cleaner. The nature of the original photography restricted the final result, but this turned into an impressive step up in quality.

(Note that the 30th Anniversary DVD duplicated the episode discs from the original 2002 DVDs. Obviously this makes comparisons between the Blu-ray and the 2002 release the same as what I stated above.)

The Blu-ray mixes old and new extras. Originally broadcast in January 1978, Roots: One Year Later goes for 47 minutes, 37 seconds as it mixes mini-series clips with then-new behind the scenes footage. We get some comments from executive producer David L. Wolper, author Alex Haley, USC sociologist Dr. Mary Laslett, then-UN ambassador Andrew Young, slave-owners’ descendant Judge Nelson Waller, slave descendant Effie Murray, and actors LeVar Burton, Georg Stanford Brown, Ed Asner, and Lloyd Bridges.

Hosted by Louis Gossett Jr., “Later” includes a few little journeys. We learn of Alex Haley’s research for his book and follow him on a trip back to Kunta Kinte’s African village along with his brothers George and Julius. Wolper tells us why he chose to adapt the story and elements of the production.

The program offers reflections on the mini-series’ massive success and subsequent impact on society and those involved in it. We get to know a little more about Haley’s family and their reactions to the Roots phenomenon. Haley and Burton visit the site of Kunta Kinte’s grave and other historical locations, and we take in a reunion of the descendants of slaves and slave-owners.

Inevitably, “Later” often becomes somewhat self-congratulatory. Since it concentrates on the mini-series’ success, this means a lot of talk about its greatness. Nonetheless, we find plenty of useful elements here. We find cool tidbits like Burton’s screentest and a clip of Haley with Johnny Carson. There’s enough nice historical material here to make “Later” worth your time.

After this we check out Crossing Over: How Roots Captivated an Entire Nation. This 20-minute, 34-second show features comments from Burton, Wolper, writer William Blinn, USC Professor of Critical Studies Dr. Todd Boyd, former ABC executive Brandon Stoddard, Alex Haley’s son William, and actors James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee.

“Nation” examines the national social mindset in early 1977 and how Roots fit the country at that time. We get info about how the book got developed into a mini-series, the decision to use white writers and other racial elements, concerns among the suits at ABC and controversial aspects of the production, and historical accuracy and liberties, and worries whether the mini-series would spark racial tensions. Finally, the show examines the mini-series’ reception and success as well as its impact on society.

“Nation” presents a reasonable overview of the mini-series and the era in which it debuted. We find some repetition from other parts of the disc, but it encapsulates the issues in a decent manner. Granted, I’m not sure you’ll be up for more information of this sort after all the other pieces, but “Nation” works well on its own.

Connecting with the Past goes for 13 minutes, 21 seconds and involves Burton, Gossett, Jones, Asner, Gossett, William Haley, actor/activist Russell Means, director Marvin Chomsky, and actor Leslie Uggams. We get some stories about the “roots” of the involved participants. This offers a smattering of interesting stories but it fails to become especially involving.

With The Struggles to Make Roots, we find a 22-minute, 58-second piece that provides details from Burton, Wolper, Chomsky, Blinn, Stoddard, Uggams, Burton, Asner, Chomsky, Gossett, casting director Lynn Stalmaster, art director Joe Jennings, TV critic Brian Lowry, former ABC TV president Fred Silverman, and actors John Schuck and Sandy Duncan. “Struggles” looks at aspects of the mini-series’ path to the small screen as well as aspects of the production. Some redundant material appears, but “Struggles” offers a good overview anyway.

A LeVar Burton Original Screen Test runs eight minutes, four seconds. This shows Burton in two different scenes: one with a friend in Africa and the other as a prisoner on a slave ship. It offers an interesting curiosity.

From the early 1970s, an Alex Haley Interview goes for 36 minutes, 42 seconds. A guest with David Frost, Haley discusses what inspired him to write Roots as well as research.

Since the book’s publication, it’s come out that much of Roots is closer to fiction than fact, so take Haley’s claims with a grain of salt. Still, it’s good to get an extended chat with the author, especially since it took place during the writing of Roots, well before Haley realized what an impact it would have.

Two brand-new features round out the set. Roots: The American Story Continues lasts 27 minutes, six seconds and features civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton, writer/producer Shonda Rhimes, broadcaster/author Tavis Smiley, Smithsonian Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs Dr. Rex Ellis, nephew Christopher Haley, and actors Blair Underwood, Whoopi Goldberg, James Earl Jones, and Debbie Allen. They discuss the societal impact of Roots and what it meant to them. A little of this info goes a long way, and “Continues” lacks enough interesting material to sustain it across 27 minutes.

Finally, Roots: The Cast Looks Back fills 29 minutes, one second with info from Burton, Gossett, Brown, Asner, Duncan, and actors John Amos, Ben Vereen, Lynne Moody and Cicely Tyson. They reflect on their experiences during the miniseries’ creation as well as its legacy. “Cast” offers enough substance to succeed.

The package concludes with a 32-page book. This provides photos, episode summaries, and various forms of memorabilia. It offers a nice tag to the set.

When compared with the prior DVDs, the Blu-ray drops a few extras – most notably, we lose a series-spanning audio commentary. It offered a wealth of information, so its absence disappoints.

We’ll likely never see a TV phenomenon like Roots again. The show took the country by storm and remains the mini-series against which all others must be compared. The Blu-ray delivers dated but good picture and audio along with a positive set of supplements. This becomes a quality representation of a memorable mini-series.

To rate this film visit the 25th Anniversary Edition review of ROOTS

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main