It has been said before that slavery was America’s “original sin.” When you consider that it has been more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War and race remains an issue on just about every nightly newscast, it makes one wonder if there isn’t some kind of mark of Cain on us.
But I am not qualified or capable of solving the issue of race relations — not even if I had nine million words at my disposal rather than the 900 or so here.
Now we turn the bend toward another summer season marked by Memorial Day, which, contrary to what Madison Avenue advertisers would have you believe, is a day purposed to make us pause and remember those who have fallen in battle, rather than a day to be herded like goats into sporting goods stores to stock up on beach and camping equipment.
Memorial Day was born out of the savagery of the Civil War in an attempt to somehow sanctify the carnage and give it all some kind of meaning. The very first Memorial Day observance took place in 1868 at Arlington Cemetery, which also happened to be the property of Confederate General Robert E. Lee prior to the war.
On that first Memorial Day, Ulysses S. Grant and his wife hosted the event that ended with children laying flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
Since that war and slavery are forever linked to one another, it is almost poetic to consider that the remake of the seminal television mini-series “Roots” will be unveiled on Memorial Day.
Now I am not usually a big fan of remakes, reboots or recycled movies or television programs. They tried to make a television series out of the epic “Casablanca” and it was an epic fail. Bruce Willis was attached to a proposed remake of the John Wayne classic “The Searchers” that, thankfully, never came to fruition. That would have been about as close to pop culture heresy as you could get. But there have been successes in this field. “The Dark Knight” Batman movie is superior to the Tim Burton versions in my ever so humble opinion.
When it comes to “Roots,” the time is probably right for a revisit. Remember, when the original mini-series aired it was nothing short of a sensation. It was that glorious time of network television dominance and the 1977 debut of this multi-part saga garnered 37 Emmy nominations and contained a cast full of new African American faces, some familiar faces and a slew of just about every other television star that could be mustered at the time.
I watched part of an episode of the original not so long ago and the 1970s television storytelling style was almost stifling and when I heard that a remake of the series was in the works, it made sense. But the accomplishment of the 1977 mini-series, when taken into perspective, is an accomplishment of a high order. And for perspective … just trace the history of race relations through cinema (and television). Compared to the silent film classic “Birth of a Nation,” the original 1977 version of “Roots” was light years ahead.
Strangely, I have a direct connection to the 1915 D.W. Griffith film. No, I was not around when it was made, but I knew someone who was in it. His name was Joseph Henaberry and he was an assistant to director Griffith and married to a cousin of my dad. We called him Uncle Joe for some reason and he and “Aunt” Lil lived in the Valley and were staples at family gatherings. Joseph Henaberry not only worked behind the camera on “Birth of a Nation,” but also portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the film. I was too young to understand or think of asking Uncle Joe about this film, but I was always proud of my tenuous connection to it.
Not so proud of the way African-Americans are portrayed in this movie. The good news was this film was controversial in 1915 and roundly condemned by the fledgling NAACP and many Americans of every race, despite the fact the president of the United States at that time praised the film for its faithfulness to history. Of course, that “history” is from a distinctively white and racist point of view, full of the worst kinds of stereotypes and outright vile racism.
All the “important” black roles are played by white actors in blackface. And we are not talking Lawrence Olivier’s meticulous and artistic rendering of Othello, but old-fashioned minstrel show weirdness. The plot was all about Southern manhood resisting horrible Union forces via the KKK. It was quite a lot to take — even for 1915 audiences.
“Gone With the Wind,” some 24 years later, made valiant attempts to avoid the same pitfalls, but there are certainly scenes and depictions of happy slaves that are truly cringe-worthy. So “Roots” is progress. It was written by an African American about his real African American lineage and the 1977 mini-series was performed by African American actors.
The 2016 version of “Roots” will hopefully carry the progress even further and inspire more kids in school to learn a little more about the “original sin” of America by looking back to where we were before looking forward. Then the graves decorated with flowers on that first Memorial Day may prove silent sentinel to something greater and to a more promising future.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.