Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Screening America, Vol. 1, No. 1

The Return of Roots

     In 1977 one of the most powerful miniseries ever made was televised in the United States. Up until the airing of the show most Americans were under the impression that slavery in the antebellum era was benign and not very bad. Roots exposed the horrors of captivity, the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, and the harsh treatment of slaves by white Europeans and Americans. For eight consecutive nights Americans watched the saga of an American family unfold. It was an eyeopening experience for many and it led to a questioning of slavery in American history.

     Last night, nearly forty years after the original presentation of Roots on television, a remake of the show began to air on a few channels. Once again, the powerful story of slavery is on our screens. This time, most Americans are aware that slavery was a negative force in American history. Some few disagree, but they tend to reject facts and support racism. For historians, this is a time to explain how slavery played a pivotal role in the development of this nation as well as to explain how the slavery that existed in the American colonies led directly to the racial problems of today. 

    There are those that will deny this is true, but they do not study history. They prefer a fictional past that never existed. Those people also perpetuate the problems that exist and have existed for centuries. Their denial of reality condemns them to continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. It also affects the rest of us who are trying to move forward.

 Film is a medium in which history has often been exploited and mangled in order to develop a story to present to the public. The story which unfolds in this show is a mixture of fiction and fact. The author, Alex Haley, did some good research, but also added details which some have used to attack the accuracy of both the novel and miniseries. The 2016 remake hopefully is addressing some of this. Rather than go into great depth on this, I want to allow students who watch this show to do some research of their own. That's what I do with the film class. Students take apart the films and examine the history depicted in them. The results help them learn more about history in the process. 

Here is the website for the 2016 remake of Roots: Roots Website

Keep in mind that the History Channel is not perfect when it comes to the delivering of history as it is driven by the need to turn a profit and therefore get viewers. On the other hand, the History Channel is fairly good with its website in pointing people to sources. It is just like watching a movie. Never take anything at face value and always check sources. Passive viewing of films and television shows can never take the place of active learning.

Also, the Organization of American Historians has a blog and today's post was about Roots. Process Blog - Roots

PBS has a great documentary on slavery. PBS - Slavery and the Making of America

Take the time to watch the show and to do some investigation. I think you will begin to find just how important slavery was in our past and what impact it is having on our present. Knowledge or ignorance of slavery will shape our future.

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