Well the Roots remake is over now, and I believe that it ended with a mess of an episode. I am writing a review of the whole series for the Journal of the Civil War Era’s blog (which will post early next week), so I will confine my comments today to just the last episode. However, I will say now that I agree almost wholly with this essay on Buzzfeed today (as some of my previous comments on the other episodes, as well as things I have complained about when discussing Underground and 12 Years a Slave have suggested), although I think there is more to say about the show’s fundamental flaw. This piece from Mother Jones, while mainly laudatory, also touches on the problem.
But what about the last episode? I think it was by far the weakest. It deviates the most from the original series, which was exciting at first because it held out the promise of depicting slave agency and involvement in the Civil War. It did that for sure, but almost nothing worked for me. Anna Paquin is a talented actress, but her time in the series was pretty much wasted. Her character of a Union spy disguised as a southern belle was meant to give Chicken George’s son, Tom, a means of getting involved in helping the Union war effort despite his original reluctance and his desire (in contrast to his father–at least in this episode) to keep his family together by keeping his master happy and by staying out of trouble. Of course there were female Union spies during the war, and they did often have free blacks working with them disguised as slaves (Hattie Lawton and John Scobell come immediately to mind), but this plot point felt mainly like an attempt to throw in a token good white person, something of which the original series had too much.
They could have found much better ways to show Tom participating in the war. As a skilled laborer working for a master that is a respected engineer at a North Carolina foundry, it would have been very realistic to have Tom impressed into Confederate service. There he could have encountered other slaves in Rebel camps (body servants and impressed laborers), and this could have led to very interesting conversations and plot lines leading to the decision to flee to Union lines, despite the fact that the war had yet to become one of liberation. Thus, it could have been demonstrated that the enslaved were intent on using the war for their own purposes, creating a problem for Union commanders that had to be solved by emancipation.
Meanwhile, Tom’s father, Chicken George, seeks to get involved in the war almost immediately by making his way to Union lines. He does so, and signs up with the USCTs and fights in the Battle of Fort Pillow. I am very happy that they decided to depict black Union troops, and I think Kevin Levin is absolutely correct when he asserts on his blog today that it very important for audiences to have been exposed to the reality of what Confederates routinely did to black soldiers when they surrendered (Fort Pillow was more the rule than the exception). Still, I can’t help but feel a great opportunity was wasted. The evolution of United States policy in regards to emancipation is not explored at all, and like Tom’s storyline, Chicken George’s could have been nicely used to demonstrate the role that African Americans played in this transition. I would have liked to have seen Chicken George express an understanding that when the war started, emancipation was not the aim of Lincoln and federal policy, but then show his determination to use the war for his own purpose; the freedom of his people. This leads him to flee to Union lines, and then he joins the USCTs once the Union finally recruits blacks into military service.
Oh, but perhaps I am falling into the trap of criticizing something for what I wish it would have been, rather than what it was (but if any Hollywood screenwriters are reading this, let’s talk. I think I’ve got a good idea for a movie that could accurately reflect the role that African Americans played in the war’s transition to one of liberation! I’ve also got a book on this I will gladly sell you the rights to 🙂 ) On whole, I felt the last episode was a bit of a disjointed mess in which the narrative flow did not work, and that had some real potential that was missed. I am most disappointed, however , that we never got an exploration of the importance of slave religion and music in the day-to-day resistance of the enslaved. But I will save those observations for later. For now, I’ll just end by saying that episode 3 was far and away the jewel in the remake of Roots.