First off, some self serving promotion: I have two new pieces that went up today. The first is a book review for the Civil War Monitor of Edna Greene Medford’s, Lincoln and Emancipation. The other is an essay for We’re History that carries the intentionally provocative title of “How Robert E. Lee Helped Destroy Slavery.” The two pieces are actually related; Just call them two more shots I’ve launched at a certain Lincoln Prize winning book.
I felt the second episode of the Roots remake was much better than the first, as I agree with most of what Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar writes here in her review. ***Spoiler Warning*** I really liked how they got Kunta involved in the American Revolution, fighting for his freedom by accepting Lord Dunmore’s (the colonial governor of Virginia) offer of liberty in exchange for militarily supporting the British. They got a lot of the details right, including such seemingly minor things as the ravages of small pox on the slaves in British camps, and the sashes that declared “liberty to slaves.” None of this was in the original, so it was a pleasant surprise. But this was part of a larger trend with this series that is becoming obvious: they are amping up the action scenes. It looks like this is one of the main ways they are trying to attract a new generation of viewers. This episode alone featured Kunta fighting in the Revolution, Kunta and Fidder being attacked by a slave patrol, a tornado, Kizzy’s training as a badass warrior, and a scene involving an escape attempt by Kizzy’s would-be lover, Noah (a role played in the original by Welcome Back Kotter’s Lawrence Jacobs–Freddy “boom boom” Washington— but which is handled nicely this time by director Mario Van Peeble’s son, Mandela Van Peebles). While I hated the way that one of these scenes led to Fiddler’s demise (in the original he dies very peacefully of old age in a memorable scene), they do give the series a bit of spunk and gusto. Still, the killings that the characters got away with are very unrealistic, and I am not happy that the violence seems to be the main way the show is thus far depicting slave resistance and control of their lives (the fooling of the master in order to get Kunta the job of driver being an exception, and a good example of a much more common occurrence on southern plantations) . Character development was much stronger in this episode, but this is mainly a product of when they stick more closely to the original (in particular, the relationship between Kizzy and Missy Reynolds, which led to Kizzy’s clandestinely learning to read). The separation scene between Kizzy and her parents was as powerful as in the original, and I think it is the product of the character development that was missing in the first episode (which weakened the effectiveness of the infamous whipping scene). The show ended with some pretty strong emotions getting stirred up (at least in me), so this is a good sign for the last two episodes. I am also glad to see the entrance of actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers into the series. This dude always seems to play despicable characters, and he does it well. The one he is playing in this Roots remake is a particularly nasty guy (played shockingly in the original by Chuck Conners of The Rifleman), so he is likely to inject some strong energy into the show (and already disgustingly did so in his first appearance). Keep watching!
Meanwhile, the show’s producer has responded to Snoop Dogg’s criticism, noting that it was ironic that Snoop used the “n-word” during his rant. “I couldn’t help but think there’s a ghost of some horrendous slave owner that is smiling and smirking as he watches this black man call himself that.” Whoa.