On Watching ‘Roots’ and ‘Holocaust’ for the First Time

Tuning in to the 1970s historical family sagas that defined a generation’s idea of victimhood and survival—and changed television

By Ruth Margalit|February 17, 2015 12:00 AM


It’s a little unfair to re-watch a certain kind of drama on television. Unlike comedy—that vital lady whose quips can still floor a crowd—drama too often resembles the aging beauty queen in the corner—weathered, self-important, wearing far too much make-up. Take the 1970s. The armchair bigotry of Archie Bunker; the slaphappy gestures of Suzanne Somers; the sly, anti-’Nam subtext of M*A*S*H. Beyond the zaniness, these shows had something of consequence to say about the decade, a layer of hypocrisy that they were aiming to unspool. Now try sitting through one episode of Hawaii Five-O or Charlie’s Angels.

One genre of drama stands apart in the 1970s: The miniseries, that sprawling, part instructive, part raunchy epic whose premieres became, in the words [1] of one critic, “a national pajama party.” There was Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which first aired in 1977 on ABC, and Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss, which came out the following year on NBC. Wondering what effect, if any, these series still had almost 40 years after they first aired, a few months ago I began to watch them both, back to back. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I hadn’t seen either, except for a single episode of Roots—the first one, I think—during English class in my Jerusalem middle school. The reason I remember that, while barely recalling any of the episode’s details, is that, for a while, some kids in my class would go around calling the darker-skinned Sephardim among us “Kunta Kinte” (our teacher, cringingly, seemed to condone this). Like many in my generation, born in the 1980s, I didn’t even know the Holocaust series existed.

To present-day viewers, the flavor and story-lines of both series may seem more reactionary than radical. Yet the miniseries format itself was revolutionary. More than that, of course, Roots and Holocaust were groundbreaking in the subjects that they tackled. “Never had so many white viewers watched anything black in the history of television,” wrote Henry Louis Gates, Jr., summing up the effect of the series in the 1992 documentary Color Adjustment. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alex Haley, Roots famously unfolds the odyssey of a black family over seven generations, from slavery to freedom. The miniseries spent two years in production, with a record $500,000 spent on each episode, before airing over eight consecutive nights on ABC. It became, at the time, the highest-rated show on television, with more than 60 percent of Americans tuning in at some point to watch. In a single week in 1977, seven of the top 10 most-watched programs on television belonged to episodes of Roots.

While not as popular as Roots in the United States, and in some ways more controversial, Holocaust became a sensation worldwide, especially in West Germany, where many of the young viewers were encountering their country’s crimes for the first time. “No one had expected this kind of reaction to Holocaust,” Julius Schoeps, a German historian, wrote in 1979. Shoeps had been a member of a panel of scholars charged with taking viewers’ calls after each episode aired. He recounted his experience: “Over the course of the four evenings on which Holocaust was broadcast, there were more and more voices who claimed not to have seen, heard, or known anything. Some were ashamed, blamed themselves, some cried.” One evening, he wrote, after receiving roughly 10,000 incoming calls from viewers, “I had the feeling—and I still do—that something was set in motion.”

So, I tuned in to both series, wondering how they had aged and what a lay viewer might make of them now. I began in chronological order with Roots.

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“On the surface, the power of the Roots stories remains something of mystery or paradox,” Michael J. Arlen wrote in The New Yorker in 1979, after Roots: The Next Generation, also known as Roots II, came out. “The nature of this power is not so clear. For example, the dramas are alleged to be uplifting to blacks, and so they are, but they are also in many instances subtly and not so subtly condescending toward them. Or they are supposed to be instructive to whites, but in fact the instruction is often inept, implausible, and inaccurate.”

The inaccuracy, which Arlen lingered on, had been expanded upon three years earlier by historian Willie Lee Rose. It had to do, among other things, with Haley’s idyllic description of his ancestors’ native village of Juffure on the Gambian River. Roots opens with the birth, in a bucolic tent, of a baby boy. The year is 1750. All around are signs of the symbiotic relationship between man and nature. Human life in the village is peaceful and unobtrusive. The landscape is lush. We see one striking harbinger of the menace to come: a leopard ravaging the family’s goat.

The baby’s father names him Kunta Kinte. As a boy, Kunta Kinte learns to hunt and to gather. He is a fast learner; a lot is made of his courage. When he attends manhood training with other boys from his Mandinka tribe, he is the first to volunteer to take on a man twice his size. But the African Eden he grew up in is soon disturbed. Two white men in charge of a slave ship arrive one day on the Juffure shore to discuss the logistics of their future “cargo.” In one of the series’ most famous scenes [3], Kunta Kinte ambles into the woods at the suggestion of his grandmother (played by a wonderful Maya Angelou) to fashion a drum for his younger brother. As he searches for some logs, four African slavers emerge from the trees and begin to run after him. A chase ensues, at the end of which the teenaged Kunta Kinte is harnessed with a rope like a wild animal, shackled, and led aboard the Maryland-bound ship.

This scene was one of the first depictions in American culture of African slavers and of the role they played in the booming slave trade of the time. But as Rose pointed out in his review of Roots the book, to think that the real Juffure in the 18th century was as pastoral as Haley made it out to be before the slavers arrived is, quite simply, “not possible.” Juffure was in reality the focal point of a prolific trade system, run by a powerful local king who controlled and restricted all movement along the Gambia River. It had likely been a slave-trading epicenter for all of West Africa long before Kunta Kinte went searching for that drum shell. Given that at the time a commercial war was under way between the African king and the English Empire over customs payment, “It is also inconceivable at any time, but particularly under these circumstances, that two white men should have dared come ashore in the vicinity of Juffure to capture Kunta Kinte.”

In taking Roots to task for playing fast and loose with the facts, this line of criticism both gets at and misses the main issue. The realm we are in, in Haley’s quixotic definition, is that of the “faction”—part fact, part fiction. His series condenses the span of a century to six one-hour episodes. This means that viewers are asked to suspend their disbelief enough to accept such things as the fact that, in a single episode, the grandson of Kunta Kinte—a young expert in cockfighting who goes by the name of Chicken George—will have grown enough not only to have children of his own but to have grandchildren. (No actor, not even a spirited Ben Vereen, is svelte enough to make this leap in time appear seamless.) Unbeknownst to him, George is half white. His mother’s master raped her after she had been sold off from her parents. As George grows up, his mother, Kizzy, tells him stories of his grandfather’s bravery and resistance; she tells him how Kunta Kinte had once tried to escape to freedom only to be caught and made to pay with his left foot. She wants George to take pride in his African heritage. But George believes in changing his fate from within the system. “I ain’t gonna be no damn runaway fool,” he tells her. Kizzy stares him down and says of her father: “Least he ain’t like you, slaved down to your bones.”

The clash between the ideals of mother and son is emblematic of the series, with each of the cast’s black characters representing not an individual but an archetype, while all but two of the white characters are cardboard-thin figures of undistinguished malice and scorn. Yet, as with any story, Roots is at its best when it’s least emphatic. In one of the show’s most powerful scenes, Kizzy, now a silver-haired woman with a sloped back, walks by a water well when a carriage pulls up. Inside sits a pruned white woman. She asks Kizzy to fetch her some water. Kizzy recognizes her instantly: It’s her closest childhood friend, Missy Anne, the daughter of her old master, who had stood by [4] without saying a word when Kizzy was brutally snatched from her parents. “It’s me! It’s Kizzy!” She now tells Anne in a halting voice. They lock eyes for a moment, and Anne waits a beat before hissing out, “I don’t recall knowing any darky by the name of Kizzy.” As the scene draws to an end, Kizzy slowly walks to the well, fills a pail of water and, before handing it over, spits in it. It’s a muted sign of resistance (if a somewhat hackneyed one) that humanizes the otherwise too-saintly Kizzy.

As each generation of Kunta Kunte’s progeny grows up, they pass along the story of their ancestor, the Mandinka warrior. By series’ end, when Kunta Kinte’s remaining clan-members ride their mules into sunset and settle in Tennessee, I was dabbing away tears, wondering whether I’d been duped by a stroke of sentimental legerdemain and whether it even mattered if I had. As Michael J. Arlen conceded, despite his critique of the show’s factual oversights: “There is little point in putting this sort of question to historical archive or record books—as if one might prove anything one way or the other by the answer—for, though the facts of the drama may here and there correspond with history, the ‘poetry’ of the storytelling is in the extraordinary energy of dream.”

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After days spent imbibing Roots’ moralism—film critic Richard Brody described the design of the show to me in an interview as “basically a black story that whites could like”—I expected to find a similar binary of good versus evil play out in Holocaust, which not only followed on Roots’ heels, aiming to bank on similar success, but also shared several production members with the pioneering miniseries. Instead, I was surprised to discover one of the more nuanced roles and performances I have seen on the screen: that of a wide-eyed and brilliantined Michael Moriarty as Erik Dorf, a low-level SS technocrat who quickly climbs the security force’s chain of command to devastating effect.

Like its predecessor, Holocaust also centers on a single family. It begins not with a birth, but with another celebration: the 1935 wedding of Berliners Karl Weiss, a young Jewish artist (James Woods), and Inga Helms, his Christian girlfriend (Meryl Streep). The event, though joyous, is shot through with a sense of foreboding. A Nazi guest, on hearing the unmistakably Jewish name of the groom’s uncle, warns Inga’s brother: “Moses Weiss? Did anyone talk to your sister before she went ahead with this?”

Restrictions begin to close in on the well-to-do Weiss family. Karl’s father, a doctor, is soon forbidden from treating Aryan patients; his grandfather is robbed and beaten on the street. The family is forced out of its home. Rudi, Karl’s brother, flees to Kiev. Karl himself is rounded up for “routine questioning” and then sent to Buchenwald. All the while, Dorf continues his meteoric rise in the Nazi war machine and becomes an indispensable aide to Reinhard Heydrich, the ruthless official whom Hitler called “the man with the iron heart.” The unfolding drama is powerful and effective, if somewhat baffling in its disregard for visual verisimilitude. (Writing in the Sunday Times after the show first aired, Holocaust survivor Reuben Ainsztein dismissed the show’s depiction of Buchenwald as a place where “the inmates look so well-fed and well-dressed that I would not be surprised if the stills are reproduced one day in a neo-nazi [sic] pamphlet as proof of how decent conditions were.”)

The show’s message, if one can call it that, is more problematic. Without giving away too many plot turns, it’s enough to say that Holocaust may be thought to suggest that, by mounting an armed fight, and with a dollop of fearlessness and connivance, Jews could survive the horrors of the Nazis. While this was certainly true for many courageous partisans, there’s something deeply troublesome in implying that European Jews had any real degree of control over their fates.

As with Roots, it’s maybe unfair to read too much into a show whose primary goal is entertainment. But a greater paradox is at work in both miniseries: While revolutionary in form and subject matter, their storytelling is surprisingly conservative, especially given the rise of identity politics at the time in which they were filmed. “Roots was an indictment of bad people and of certain forms of brutality, but in terms of the entire edifice of American political, social, and economic structure, it came off pretty unscathed,” sociologist Herman Gray has argued. To a younger contemporary viewer, both shows are frustratingly apolitical, ahistorical even. As their subtitles (“The saga of an American family” and “the story of the family Weiss”) make clear, they are, at their core, family dramas—about families and meant for consumption by families. (This might help explain why they were conceived for television, an ideal outlet for joint viewing, and not for the cinema.) And yet the families they center on are flawless, virtuous, sanitized. “They do not live in historical time at all,” David Wheeler wrote in a blistering review of Holocaust in The Listener in 1978, “but in the cliché-ridden tradition of American television family series.”

Still, it’s hard to submerge oneself in these television behemoths—quasi-historical, quasi-literary, fully earnest—and not lament their passing. We may be currently experiencing a golden age of television, but we tend to forget that this age applies almost only to cable or online-streaming services. The Wire, perhaps the most ambitious recent show, was almost canceled because of poor ratings; Mad Men has averaged between 2 million to 3 million viewers; even The Sopranos, a ratings bonanza, peaked at 13 million. Compare that to the 140 million who watched Roots.

An atavistic longing sets in for an era when network television had flair and gravitas. I had watched both Roots and Holocaust on my own, on a laptop, with about a dozen other tabs open in the background, each spelling a distraction. The flaws of both series seemed glaring. But then I thought of a family, at the tail end of the 1970s, huddling together in the living room night after night and watching a new kind of drama unfold. Though certainly not perfect, these miniseries were charged with undeniable power, and that power is still there. Call it, in Arlen’s words, the elusive “ ‘poetry’ of storytelling.”

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