The Actors Made the Difference

Jan 22, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Elvis Mitchell

Special to TelevisionWeek

“Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.” Perhaps that sounds like a description of the assaultive snow that seemed to thud rather than fall on Colorado this year. But a similar snowfall had ganged up on the Eastern portion of the country 30 years ago. And so, ABC inadvertently benefited from a decision to cram all of the episodes of a miniseries into a single week rather than have it play out over many weeks.

For those of you reading this on your BlackBerrys, the miniseries was a flash-fever phenomenon that had the same power to compel as a reality series, and for the most part, was thought of just as highly. That show was based on what was then called Alex Haley’s nonfiction book about the genealogy of his family, starting with the kidnapping of his ancestor Kunta Kinte from Africa and his enslavement and charting the history of the Haley family to the present day. And in the dramatization of Haley’s “Roots” was where many Americans first heard the phrase, “Behold …”; a newborn black child was held aloft by his father, who chanted the words as a mantra on faith and confidence in his baby’s future.

The power of “Roots” came from its intimacy, and the hungriness of a group of black actors savoring roles that fed into their own roots in this country-from a young LeVar Burton in his debut through to veterans including John Amos, Madge Sinclair and, eventually, in the sequel to “Roots,” Marlon Brando, taking his only made-for-TV role. And the main reason that “Roots” was so deliciously watchable derived from the compelling pleasure that a group of black actors took in opening their hearts and art to portray a grim and ugly part of history that was glimpsed only briefly in dramas. And when it was, that side of life was seen momentarily in classics most black people couldn’t stomach, like “Gone with the Wind” or “Jezebel,” or central to contemptible films such as “Mandingo,” which so humiliated one of its stars, James Mason, that he seemed to deliver his lines while trying to work a tenacious piece of spinach out of his front teeth.

Here was the real and undeniable legacy of this show, which treated its mostly black cast with respect, and the actors responded in kind with a kind of fervor that made us feel we were watching a group of people who had just been hit with a freezing blast of sunlight after a no-holds-barred snowstorm, and were standing proud and tall beneath its rays. And their gifts brought an entire country together, with everyone talking about “Roots,” and its incontrovertible glory caused the art world equivalent of Brando acting on TV: Romare Bearden doing a TV Guide cover.

Now, black-centered projects are thought to interest only a black audience. Thirty years later, thoughtful adult drama centering on a black cast is as noteworthy as a blizzard crippling the country, and occurs even less often. Even on pay cable, where smarter drama is the order of the day, blacks are for the most part given short shrift; the overpraised nihilism of “The Wire” feels intended for an audience that managed to elude decades of rap that said the same thing, and offered its characters dignity. Maybe now that snow has shut part of the country down-as it did 30 years ago-perhaps someone, somewhere, will also remember that the right project can draw the nation, given a chance to behold something greater than itself. Elvis Mitchell is a veteran film critic and host of the PBS culture program “The Treatment.”