`ROOTS' was a seminal work of television fiction. The mini-series sprang from writer Alex Haley's investigation into his mother's family back to a slave named Kunte Kinte, a young African captured and brought in chains to the United States in the 18th century. Well-made, -written, and -acted, "Roots" was an affirmation of African-American cultural identity.
If many of "Roots" attitudes seemed insistently contemporary, it was meant to illuminate just how evil slavery was, how cruel and obnoxious bigotry continues to be, and - most important - how fine is the heritage of African-Americans. It began a lot of self-searching by blacks and whites.
"Roots" was groundbreaking television, and while I cannot argue that its sequel, "Queen," will have anything like its predecessor's impact, it is a worthy mini-series meant to further our understanding of the implications of slavery as seen in its affects on one family.
"Queen" (airing Feb. 14, 16, and 18 on CBS) tells the story of Mr. Haley's father's family, beginning with his great-grandmother. A slave on a large plantation during Andrew Jackson's administration, beautiful young weaver Easter (Jasmine Guy), falls in love with her master (Tim Daly). Though he marries a rich white woman, as his family demands, the young master's love for Easter deepens, and their relationship continues until her death. Their daughter, Queen, is born between two worlds. Looking white, s he is brought up as a lady's maid for her half-sister.
But as the Civil War approaches and "Master James" goes to fight, the plantation is gradually stricken. Then life changes for Queen (Halle Berry). Having lost her black family, all the young woman wants is love - not equality - from her white family. But the gulf between black and white is too great.
Eventually, she must make her own way in the world, and the path is fraught with danger and suffering. What she eventually makes of herself, though, and what she carves out in love with husband and children, sustains her through her difficult life.
Moving from the antebellum South though the Civil War, Reconstruction, and on to the 20th century in six hours, "Queen" reproduces a complex world and layered dramatic situations. There are white men who hold slaves but don't believe in slavery, and black men and women who are loyal to white owners. The filmmakers have wisely depicted black and white relations as complicated and intricate - graced at times by elements of tenderness and constancy - without justifying the slavery or the racial inequities ( including atrocities) of the postwar era.
As Queen is battered by the inhumanity of others, she is worn down and embittered. But she is not left in that state. Both the black and the white world treat her badly. But it is only in the black world that she has any possibility of happiness or peace.
TILL, the filmmakers insist on complexity, and in the end, a white man helps her in an hour of severe need and a white woman makes it possible for Queen's youngest son to continue his education.
Perhaps the most important idea that emerges from "Queen" is that in a system so outrageously unjust as slavery was, even the best of men and women who subscribed to that system could not avoid doing wrong. Colonel James and his mother (Ann-Margret) are decent people, kind to their slaves, religious, caring. But because they are slave-holders, because they participate in the subjugation of others, they become guilty of gross neglect toward their own kin. The viewer blames them for their part in Queen's s uffering and for failing to love her as a daughter.
Perhaps because of the nature of a TV epic - the sweep of time and space - important details are trimmed. It is sometimes difficult to understand why certain characters do some of the dreadful things they do. We just don't know enough of James Sr.'s history, for instance, to grasp what would have motivated so dire a cruelty as he committed in earlier days against Cap'n Jack.
While it's hard to tell how much is history and how much is poetic license in "Queen," the story is basically well told, true to a worthy vision of justice and of individual courage in the face of overwhelming injustice.
The writing is uniformly good. and the cast boasts excellent veteran actors Danny Glover, Ossie Davis, Paul Winfield, Ann-Margret, Martin Sheen, and George Grizzard. Each of them contributes wholly realized characterizations within the parameters of the story. Jasmine Guy as Easter is particularly fine - sensitive and ingenious through a range of ages and circumstances.
Halle Berry's Queen sometimes falters: It is a very large and very difficult role for so young an actress. Yet she has her moments - moments that are profoundly moving and richly revealing.