Episode three of Roots hits a high

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Chicken George with his owner, and father, Tom Lea

Last night’s episode of the Roots remake was far and away its best. Things slowed down considerably, allowing for strong character development. By the end of the episode, we knew and understood the motivations of Chicken George, Kizzy, and owner Tom Lea better than we ever did Kunta and Fiddler, and you can’t tell me that it did not make the final scene more gut wrenching than anything we have seen so far. There are a couple of fine reviews up online from historians, such as this one, and especially this one from Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar, in which she focuses on Kizzy’s story and what it says about the lives of enslaved women.  Don’t fail to read it.

***Spoiler Warning*** The action scenes were fewer and confined to Lea’s duel and the cockfights, but these were mainly to show George’s continual attempts to bond with his father. This is not because he loves him or yearns for fatherly affection, as everyone seems to suspect, its actually a means of controlling his circumstance and holding his family together. George must keep the white man’s small-time farm financially solvent by helping to keep the irresponsible and hot-headed Lea alive and winning his outrageous cockfighting bets. (As I expected, Jonathan Rhys Meyers absolutely nailed his role as the lower class planter with an inferiority complex).  In doing so, Chicken George thus keeps his own family together and earns the money that might one day allow him to buy his own freedom. Still, it is not until Nat Turner’s rebellion that George realizes that his master/father’s trust in him is limited by his skin color, and that he will never be able to fully rely upon, or be trusted by, this white man.

Meanwhile, Kizzy makes great sacrifices for the sake of her family, revealing that she almost committed suicide when she became pregnant, but did not do so in order to fulfill the lessons she learned from her father about the responsibility to family. Thus, she endures a lifetime of rape to keep her master satiated (preventing future pregnancy through the ingestion of certain herbs and roots). She meets and falls in love with a free black man who has the money to pay for her freedom, but ultimately decides to reject his proposal in order to stay and protect her child and grandchildren. This affair played much differently in the original Roots, as Kizzy’s love interest was a slave that she ultimately rejected after he demonstrated that he was not as prideful and manly as her father Kunta. This reimagining of the relationship works better because it says more about the importance of family, but it unfortunately robs of us of one of the original’s most memorable scenes. (I won’t describe it here, because hopefully it will be depicted in some other way in our last episode tonight, and thus I do not want to spoil it for those that never saw the original).

All of these story elements played very well, realistically demonstrating the sacrifices the enslaved made to maintain their families, how important family was to their survival, and yet at the same time how family tended to tie them to an owner, forcing them to remain “loyal” (from fear of being split apart) no matter how despicable that master may have been.

Still, my biggest disappointment continues to be how the series has so far handled slave religion. Our main characters have all rejected and mocked Christianity as the “white man’s religion,” but this fails to demonstrate how important the enslaved version of Christianity was to their survival and resistance (in one strange scene, Kizzy mocks a slave preacher for not preaching the Exodus story, when in fact, that story was central to the hopes and beliefs of enslaved Christians. And, it should be noted, played a role in Turner’s revolt). Perhaps this is still to come. The same could also be said for slave music, which was used so effectively in the first episode, but has yet to remerge in any meaningful way.

I am looking forward to the finale tonight because it definitely appears that we are going to get slave agency and involvement in the Civil War, something that was missing in the original. Also, the storyline of Chicken George’s children was far and away the original’s weakness, so it will be interesting to see if this new show reverses that and ends on an even higher note.

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