[25 May 2007]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
Two DVDs out this month showcase just what it means to search for and celebrate one’s ancestors.
In the documentary `Finding Oprah’s Roots: Finding Your Own’ (PBS Home Video, $24.99), the talk-show host plays a big part. But the true star is Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote the book of the same name.
Using a canny combination of new genealogical research methods and DNA analysis, Gates demonstrates a feat many once deemed impossible: Determining with a good degree of certainty where and how African-Americans might find ancestral homes half a world away.
The video is based on and contains footage from PBS’ “Oprah’s Roots: An African American Lives Special.” In that outstanding program, Gates astounds Oprah by defying her long-held assumptions about where her ancestors dwelled in Africa. Winfrey learns that it isn’t South African Zulus but the Kpelle people of Liberia who hold the key to unlocking her past.
I’m normally not a big fan of pseudo-guru Oprah-speak. (Wasn’t she pulling tabloid-TV antics on her talk show once upon a time?) But I find it hard not to feel moved when she declares of finding her roots: “I feel empowered to say, `This is who you are, this is where you’ve come from. You’ve come from strength and power and endurance and pain and suffering and triumph. You’ve come from all of that. And so imagine how much more you can be.’ “
This week saw the release of “Roots: 30th Anniversary Edition” (Warner Home Video, $59.98), a DVD that harks back to the days of just a fistful of TV networks, no Internet and the tantalizing possibility that one program could rivet a country to its screens. On average, 130 million people - almost half the U.S. population at the time - saw all or part of the series, based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tome. Imagine any program today coming near that milestone, what with YouTube, iPods and roughly 130 million other digital distractions.
This four-disc set offers all 12 hours of the original miniseries, plus a trio of documentaries and featurettes: “Roots: One Year Later,” “Remembering Roots” (from 2002) and a new documentary “Crossing Over” How `Roots’ Captivated an Entire Nation” (hosted by miniseries star LeVar Burton and Haley’s son, William.)
Of course, those familiar with the history of “Roots” know there’s enough material out there to inform a documentary with an entirely different - and more controversial - thrust. Unlike Gates’ special, “Roots” has stirred contentious debate in the time since it first aired. Parts of the book were found to have been lifted from Harold Courlander’s 1967 novel “The African.” (Haley settled a plagiarism lawsuit out of court.) And Gates himself has said of Haley: “Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors came.”
But does this mean we should discount “Roots” altogether, and write off Haley as another James Frey? That seems unfair, given that the “Roots” miniseries was billed as a dramatization. Consider also that Haley’s work had a far-reaching and positive effect not only for African-Americans, but Americans of all stripes who longed to know more about their origins.
Haley, who died in 1992, deserves much credit for sparking our modern interest in genealogy. And whether you believe “Roots” remains faithful to his family history, or deserves more investigative scrutiny, you can’t deny the original series’ impact and how it still serves as a beacon of what television can be, apart from the morass of jiggle comedies, judge shows and Jerry Springer screaming.