ABC looks to corner next week’s market with its nightly presentation, Sunday through Sunday, of Alex Haley’s novel, a black testament based on Haley’s own ancestry. Overall script supervisor William Blinn (first two-hour chapter was written by Ernest Kinoy and Blinn) and producer Stan Margulies provide a robust, soul-searching telefilm about a country whose freedoms were not to be shared by all. It’s persuasive, touching and often commanding.
Beginning in Gambia, West Africa, in 1750 with the birth of Kunta Kinte (newcomer LeVar Burton, who makes an impressive debut), pic moves rapidly and convincingly into 1765. Youthful Kunta, son of Binta (Cicely Tyson) and Omoro (Thalmus Rasulala) undergoes the rites of manhood and, despite warnings, finds himself abducted by American whites for transport on the slave ship of Capt. Davis (Edward Asner), a man whose principles buckle.
Davis, Introduced to the truths of slave trade by third mate Slater (Ralph Waite, who insinuates himself neatly into the ruthless character), turns to run while 139 blacks lie in his cargo hold. The conditions below deck have not been stinted: The staves are treated like animals, caged and beaten, and no one, even Davis, speaks for them. By the end of the first engrossing segment of the eight in the series, a slave uprising aboard ship looks imminent.
Director David Greene, in stark change of pace from “Rich Man, Poor Man” video novel assignment, catches the spirit of the African, the pride and the strict rules of the black society which produced Kunta. Using St. Simons Island, Georgia, as a visually appropriate stand-in for Gambia, Greene insists the characters find their story dominate the screen.
There arc moments of realism that almost hurt, as when Kunta, first chained, tries to escape bondage. And there are moments of lyricism, as when a tribesman (O.J. Simpson) chases him to teach him manners, or when cameraman Stevan Larner catches the portrait of a native woman peering through the foliage.
Produced at a cost of over $6,000,000, telefilm airs in two-hour chapters Monday, next Friday and Sunday, single-hour stanzas Tuesday through Thursday and next Saturday. Storyline follows Kunta’s descend a n t s through the Civil War when they joined in the American freedom.
Production has Old Testament effects, as when, like a latter-day Abraham, Omoro holds aloft his son, or when 15yearold Kunta takes up his slingshot, or when the people are sold into bondage. But it’s an echo, not a commitment.
The production concentrates on the plight of a representative individual named Kunta, and it’s a story of exploitation and of hope. Haley, incidentally, has not glossed over the part played by blacks who worked with whites to enslave the Africans.
On realistic side, there are occasional bare bosoms, and, for authenticity , Haley has not glossed over the guilt of blacks who participated in slave trade.
Performances are uniformly good. Tyson presents a delicate study of an African mother faced with a stiff code; Ji-Tu Cumbuka as a wrestler with a tradition to uphold comes across strong; Rasulala and Harry Rhodes (who, as a tribesman, tersely notes, “The white man is here!”) I have authority, and Maya Angelou’s grandmother is a power unto herself.
Vistas of jungleland can’t camouflage the intrinsic story of the struggles of the blacks to preserve their own freedom and dignity. It’s a remarkable presentation. Future scripts are by James Lee, M. Charles Cohen. Other directors arc John Erman, Gilbert Moses, Marvin Chomsky. Location moves from the east to the Fox Ranch, Malibu, and into Goldwyn Studios.
ABC Novel For Television ROOTS – PART I (Sun., 9-11 p.m.; ABC-TV) Filmed on location in and around Savannah and St. Simons Island, Ga , by David L Wolper Prods.; Exec producer, David L Wolper; producer, Stan Margulies; director, David Greene; teleplay, William Blinn. Ernest Kinoy; based on book by Alex Haley; developed for tv by Blinn; camera, Stevan Larner; editors. Neil Travis, James T Heckert; music, Quincy Jones.
Cast: Edward Asner, O.J. Simpson, Ralph Waite, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou. LeVar Burton, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Moses Gunn, Thalmus Rasulala, Harry Rhodes, William Watson.