Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Sensor Scan: Roots
Roots needs no introduction, least of all from me. Based on the novel of the same name, Roots is a fictionalized and dramatized version of writer Alex Haley's attempt to trace his genealogy back across multiple generations to one man in Africa taken from his home and made into a slave. It was one of the most groundbreaking and influential television series of all time, capturing the imagination of an entire country through television in one of the last moments it was possible to do that, solidifying the miniseries as viable format for dramatic storytelling and making African history and heritage a central mainstream concern for one of the first times in modern history.
For my purposes, of course, the most obvious and superficial reason to tackle this show in the context of Vaka Rangi is because it introduces an up-and-coming young actor by the name of LeVar Burton in the pivotal role of Young Kunta Kinte, who will go on to play a rather significant role in the evolving history of Star Trek and the entertainment industry at large, not to mention my own life. Knowing what LeVar Burton will eventually go on to do, it's hard not to let that completely overshadow the rest of the series, but, perhaps surprisingly for someone coming to this show from a contemporary perspective on the basis of its reputation alone, he's only actually in it for two of the show's eight episodes. That said, they are two of the most important, as they depict the defining moments of Kunta Kinte's life: Namely, being abducted from his home in a Mandinka village by a slave trader, brought to the United States, sold into slavery and being tortured until he accepts his new assigned name of Toby. However, while these may be the most iconic moments of the show and while Burton's performance is predictably heartfelt, powerful, tragic and instantly memorable (which is all the more impressive given this was his first professional acting gig), this is not actually what the majority of Roots is about.
Because of this, and hastily acknowledging that Roots is the beginning and a major part of LeVar's legacy, I sort of want to leave him for the most part out of my analysis here. His presence will definitely be felt, welcomed and embraced-LeVar Burton is a person and a theme who will inspire and guide this project from this point onwards, but in the context of what Roots in particular can tell us about the television climate of 1977 and the Star Trek franchise more generally (aside from the screaming obvious, that is), his career trajectory is actually a secondary motif. Anyway, I tend to be of the belief the most revealing erudition we can discern about what LeVar Burton brings to Star Trek can be found in that other little show he was involved in for a time, but we've got a few more years on either end to get through before we can look at that one just yet. What I will mention about LeVar at this point in time, aside from his latent talent, which should be self-evident, is that he never had aspirations to work in Hollywood. Rather, he was trained as a theatre actor for pretty much his entire life and, right up until he was approached with the role of Young Kunta Kinte, assumed that's what he'd be doing for his career. So, in spite of his later Hollywood acclaim, LeVar's eventual casting as Geordi La Forge is actually a continuation of Star Trek's proud and deep-seated theatrical heritage.
The actual story of Roots is about heritage, what that means to people (especially black people and other people of colour) and how it manifests in different individuals: Alex Haley was profoundly moved by the stories his family would tell about his ancestors passed down from generation to generation through oral history, and Roots can very easily be read as his search for meaning in this through constructing an epic narrative about his family tree. Following the initial abduction of Kunta Kinte, the book and the show both follow successive generations of his descendents, all of whom must try to reconstruct their Mandinka heritage and the legacy of Kunta Kinte and decide for themselves each of these things means to them personally. The way they do this is through storytelling, where each branch of Kunta's line adds their own story to the ever-growing narrative of the family's history. The show's famous arc words that bookend each chapter make this eminently clear: “Kunta Kinte, behold! The only thing greater than yourself!” (where the name changes with each successive protagonist).
Roots then is extremely heavily indebted to oral history on every level of its production: The overall epic is fundamentally about it as this is how the story of Kunta Kinte gets to live on, and, of course, the genesis of the project came from Haley's own experiences with oral traditions. This is also I think what a lot of the misunderstanding and criticism of the show stems from: It's no great secret that Roots is not the most historically accurate work of fiction ever produced, and it's come under considerable fire for this over the years. Most of the criticism is leveled at two specific aspects of Haley's work: Firstly, that he claimed to have pieced together a grand sweeping narrative of his own family stretching back seven generations (in spite of his complementary and contradictory claim that a lot of his book was fiction and many of the historical details were embellished considerably) and secondly that he managed to do this by reconciling documented slave records with his family's oral traditions.
Many historians have claimed that the documentary evidence Haley cites is flatly in complete opposition to the narrative Roots espouses (and there are a number of obvious anachronisms and inaccuracies: The concept of the white colonial “slave catchers” is pretty solidly seen to be a fabrication, as is the idea that newly bought slaves would be tortured and forced to change their names, which are admittedly pretty big things to get wrong) and furthermore that the oral history upon which so much of it is based is notoriously unreliable and untrustworthy. But this is the thing: Doesn't this sound just a little like hegemonic imperialist sanctioned history coming in and swiftly and harshly trying to stamp out any generative and oppositional viewpoint that might call its authority into question to you? And additionally, see, what many people fail to realise and understand about oral history is that strict historical accuracy (whatever that may mean, as it's functionally impossible to recreate the past with 100% accuracy) is not actually a primary concern of the genre, and it doesn't need to be.
While certainly many oral traditions exist to preserve important events and techniques, oral history is fundamentally not about feverishly trying to document every single second of every single day for posterity. In fact, it's about pretty much the opposite of that: Many oral practitioners view writing a story as tantamount to killing it, because as long as a story can be told (and retold) it can morph and evolve and be reinterpreted by each individual storyteller within the specific, unique context that's relevant to them, and furthermore see this as a very good thing (this doesn't even get at the fact many nonmodern societies, including many African ones, don't even have the same conception of time as Westerners, such as they perceive a cyclical and ever-evolving present instead of a discreet past, present and future). As an aside, I myself find this reminiscent of many concepts Avital Ronell has worked with, namely about how texts are husks and deceased, hollow signifiers of a long-departed ethereal confluence, of which I'm particularly attracted to and have talked about before.
And this, whatever its other faults may be, is what Roots absolutely gets and conveys so well. Roots is about storytelling, in particular oral storytelling, and how this helps people come to grips with who they are, where they come from, and how to deal with the adversity of life on a day-to-day basis. Take the much-maligned scene where Kunta Kinte is forced to change his name to Toby. No, it obviously didn't really happen like that, but that's not the point: The point is that slavery was the ultimate form of dehumanization such that the slave masters and the system they were a part of took human beings and reduced them down as low as they could push them, such that it stripped away their identity (and not in the good ego death way, but in the horrifying oppressive depersonalization that defines, you know, slavery), which being tortured and broken until you're forced to accept a name your oppressors give you is a pretty damn good metaphor for. And this is why the story of Kunta Kinte's name and his Mandinka heritage are so important to the descendents, because it reminds them of their personhood and gives them a sense of self-worth when the rest of the world wasn't.
And Roots did this for not just its characters, but its viewers as well. No matter what you think about the show itself, it was without question a watershed moment in television history, and really, the history of the United States. For one thing, Roots was in many ways the archetypical “television event”: A massive, sprawling, era-defining blockbuster of a thing that basically everyone saw unfold before them together and at the same time, and as such a perfect encapsulation of a model of television that used to be the default right before it essentially ceased to be. It's probably on par with the coverage of the Moon landings, and arguably did better things for society, as Roots was also the first time something that came from an expressly non-white, non-Western perspective was given undivided mainstream attention on a massive global platform. This gets at the idea of material social progress: No, this is not the most accurate and authentic account of the history of African slavery in the United States ever written, but it didn't have to be. It was the first proper depiction of the horrors of the slave trade and the irreparable effect it had on US culture in mass media and, like it or not, Roots got people talking about things they wouldn't have been talking about if it didn't exist.
If nothing else, this was a powerful and affirmational show that legitimized a lot of people and a lot of people's perspectives and positionalities and gave them a podium they wouldn't have otherwise had. Roots took a story and a perspective considered marginal in Western high capitalism and made it acceptable by translating it into a Western structure: A sweeping Hollywood epic done as a television event. No matter what we can say about its material quality as a media artefact, Roots had an indisputably net positive effect on the world and is without question one of the defining moments of its era. And that, really, is about as good as it gets for Soda Pop Art.