Where were you on the night of January 23, 1977? With the release of the Netflix series, “When They See Us,” which details the trial of the Central Park five, we are again reminded of the power of film as a medium for speaking truth to power.
As a social justice medium, a film can inform, anger and cause reflection. The power of film was never more evident than on Sunday, January 23, 1977, when the miniseries “Roots” premiered on the ABC network. The miniseries was based on Alex Haley’s 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” The film brought to life the saga of Alex Haley’s family history from Africa to America and remains one of the most watched miniseries of all time.
This miniseries captured the attention of the nation as all of America was provided a first-hand, visual account of the horrors and oppressive nature of slavery. The film brings to life in vivid and horrific detail the capture and enslavement of Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte who was kidnapped from the village of Juffereh in The Gambia, West Africa, and follows his journey to the state of Maryland where he is eventually sold to a plantation in Virginia.
As an 11-year-old, I can remember this film vividly. Several scenes still resonate with me. I can recall the scene where Kunta Kinte as an infant is lifted high into the night sky and the words, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself,” are uttered. This scene is memorable and impactful, in that it speaks to the African culture and the purity and innocence of a people and their reverence for nature and a higher power. It is a message of pride and self-worth that still resonates with me. A message that no earthly individual, regardless of social status or income, is better than another. It is an affirmation that everyone has worth, and everyone is worthy of being treated as such.
Another iconic scene is when a young Kunta Kinte, played by Lavar Burton, is captured by slavers. I still remember the scene on the shores of his homeland as he finally succumbed to the slavers. Burton well acted the scene, and he expertly communicated the fear that Africans must have felt, in seeing a different race for the first time, and then fighting desperately not to be captured. I can only imagine the confusion they must have felt as they were marched miles to the slave ships. The scenes where they were chained in the belly of the boats were horrific, the conditions as far from humane as possible. As they sailed the Middle Passage to America, they were treated like chattel, nothing more than cargo, numbers in a book. The motivation of their captors to keep them alive was based solely on profit, nothing more. Some would live, and many would die. Some would choose death over enslavement and willingly thrust themselves into the murky waters of the ocean depths. I recall their moans from seasickness and the pain of festering sores. These sounds were only drowned out by the sounds of rape and of the salt water that was splashed on them when they occasionally were taken on deck for “exercise and cleaning.”
Perhaps the most indelible image from the miniseries is the scene in which Kunta Kinte is whipped mercilessly for refusing to say the name Toby, which was given to him by the slave master. This scene speaks to the African American identity and the history of others seeking to define who we are as people. In taking away a person’s name and identity, then who they are can be reshaped and redefined. Pride can be removed; dignity can be removed, self-worth can be destroyed, leading to not only physical slavery but mental slavery as well.
The social and cultural influence of this film is immeasurable, as this film led to an increased interest among African Americans in genealogy, as African Americans sought to discover their roots. The themes of family, identity, resilience and pride rose to the forefront as African Americans, angered by history, sought solidarity in a shared past of oppression. For many Whites, this was a time of guilt and shame, as the institution of racism and oppression was made visible for all to see. So, the question remains, where were you on the night of January 23, 1977, and where are you today? Was America made better from “Roots”? And will America be better from “When They See Us”? That is a question that we must answer as individuals and as a nation.