It is a bit difficult to watch the first episode of Roots The Next Generations if you are unfamiliar with its predecessor, Roots, as you are missing a lot of the back story. Once you get past that, however, this miniseries has a life of its own. The 7 episodes of Roots The Next Generations are now available on 4 double-sided DVD box set. Though almost thirty years old (the series aired in 1979) this miniseries about Black American history as seen through Alex Haley's family tree starting in 1882 to the sixties is still fresh and fascinating. The miniseries is also available in a Roots The Complete Series box set.
The opening episode of Roots The Next Generations is about love and family history. Tom Moore (Kunta Kinte's great grandson) and Colonel Warner (Henry Fonda) are both heads of their family and both must come to a difficult decision when one of their children falls in love with what they consider to be the wrong person: Elizabeth Harvey is in love with a very high yella man while the colonel's son (Richard Thomas) falls in love with the Black school teacher. There is a clear parallel established between the two men as both are as powerful in their respective communities and they need each other's support get what they want.
Episode 2 of Roots The Next Generations begins ten years later when the Jim Crow laws are in full force. The colonel's son plots against his father's political power and to do that he conspires to take the vote away from the Blacks that support the Colonel. Tom's other daughter falls in love with Will Palmer, a man working in a lumber yard. There are a few humoristic moments here but they are darkened by the history, some rather violent scenes, and the great though extremely sad scene where Tom Harvey loses his right to vote. The same day the Colonel and his party conspire to take the Black vote away, Will Palmer becomes the owner of the lumberyard thanks in part to the support of the very same Colonel.
In episode 3 of Roots The Next Generations Will Palmer and Tom Moore's daughter Cynthia send their daughter Bertha to college. There, Bertha (Irene Cara) will meet Simon Haley. They are Alex Haley's parents. This is a significant time in Black history as more Blacks go to college and WWI begins. The episode also points out the vast difference between different classes of Black people: Bertha is bourgeoisie and Simon dirt farmer poor. This episode also sees the rebirth of the KKK and the birth of the Pullman Porter's union.
Episode 4 starts off dramatically and not very subtly with the hanging of Black soldiers, supposedly for mutiny. Simon Haley volunteers for an extremely racist U.S. army and comes back to an America that has really not changed at all. This is probably the least interesting episode of Roots The Next Generations as there are really only a couple of scenes that really mean anything aside from what happens after the war. The stock WWII war movie footage for a WWI fight doesn't help.
Beginning in depression era America, episode 5 is about the difficulty Simon Haley has sharing his hard earned knowledge with Southern farmers and Alex Haley's formative years. Historically, the episode covers the Roosevelt years and the subsidy to help cotton farmers, a subsidy many white landowners stole back from their white or black tenant farmers.
The story of Alex Haley himself begins in episode 6 of Roots The Next Generations. Alex enrolls in the coast guard and slowly becomes a writer. Again, this episode is a bit long, but the strange way in which Haley discovered his writing talent and got his first job as a writer of sorts is very funny as is his dollar-a-love-letter ghosting enterprise. Haley also learns post WWII America is still a racist country and that becoming a writer will be extremely difficult.
James Earl Jones plays Alex Haley in the last episode of the miniseries. This is when Haley meets Malcolm X, writes his biography, and finally figures out who he was meant to be. This episode also features Marlon Brando's Emmy winning performance as the leader of the American Nazi party.
Roots The Next Generations was a fascinating and well-made miniseries and it looks great on DVD. Though some of the story -especially in episodes 4, 5, and 6-- could have been condensed and the make-up aging the actors is rather clumsily obvious at times, this 4 double-sided 7 episode DVD set is a must for anyone interested in American history. Yes, it is a TV show based on a novel but there is a lot of truth, some of it funny, some of it very awful and worth remembering, in it.