Roots (2016): The Problem With Plagiarized History

Kunta KInte Roots

“Roots,” the original television spectacle took a country by storm back in the late ’70s.   Adapted from Alex Haley’s book of the same name, it followed the trials and tribulations of Kunta Kinte a warrior sold into slavery and was a ratings smash in 1977 when it aired on ABC.  But it there was a problem, the history (judged as a true story) was plagiarized.

Haley was charged with plagiarism (accused of borrowing rather liberally from existing works, including Margaret Walker’s “Jubilee”)  and the author apologized for “inadvertently using other writer’s material.”   Ironically Haley won the Pulitzer-prize for his (two) novels and in 1993 Philip Nobile almost single handedly led a crusade to have the prize posthumously taken away from Haley.

Did these charges or Nobile’s “proof” of widespread plagiarism change the power of the television mini-series?

Hardly.

The remake, currently airing on the History Channel, is as moving and epic as the 1977 version. LeVar Burton became a household name because of his portrayal of Kunta Kinte (Toby) and brought the multi-talented Ben Vereen (Chicken George) into the well deserved spotlight.  A plethora of white actors and stars clamored to be in this “ground-breaking” look at the realities of slavery in the early part of America’s history. 

And it was based on a falsehood.  Words taken from other author’s and a myth based upon a fiction that masqueraded as fact. (Although to be fair Haley did refrain from referring to his work as non-fiction.)

Leaving the race card completely out of the equation, ” Roots” was, at its heart, a story of an underdog. A proud warrior plucked from friends and family and sold into slavery.  Transported halfway across the world he is then beaten, has his identity stolen and repeatedly tries to escape only to be caught and maltreated. Punished for trying to keep true to himself.

Slavery, whether it be Spartacus fighting the Romans or Kunta KInte fighting his new captors in the state of Virginia, is a topic sure to touch the viewer. Who does not get behind the man, or woman, who fights against oppression or rebels at being forced to be something they are not?

The first two episodes of “Roots” (2016) have aired on the History Channel. The second on 31 May 2016 and if there is not talk about Emmy gongs already, there should be.  Forest Whitaker  and Malachi Kirby have knocked it out of the park in terms of performance.  Sadly, the slave-owners and their accomplices are two dimensional cardboard cutouts, which was a problem in the original series as well.   

(Which is the problem with the intent of both programs in reality. Snoop Dogg, an entertainer who grafts hard for his living, has slammed the remake as being unnecessary; another backward look while we should all be moving and looking forward.  It is interesting to note that at the start of the story, Kunta Kinte is actually captured and enslaved by another African tribe who then sell the warrior to the British as added punishment.  This is never addressed after the beginning, choosing instead to focus on the horrible slave owners in America.)

But the real point here is not whether the tale is diminished by Haley’s plagiarism or that the story is a fiction based on a borrowed myth of other author’s works. The real issue is that the series moves the viewer. Regardless of skin color or racial heritage.

Everyone, unless they are card carrying racists of the most disgusting sort, gets behind Kunta Kinte as he fights to maintain his identity, his past, his roots.  Striving to be an individual who has a purpose and a will. “Toby” fights for the one thing he can cling to after being stolen from his people and home; his name.

Watching this version of “Roots” I was amazed to find that time had not dulled my reactions to the story.  Rage, disgust, sorrow and other feelings all manifested themselves while watching the remake just as they had back in 1977.

While Snoop Dogg’s displeasure at revisiting a part of American history that many would like to forget (Or at least gloss over, similar to country’s attitude about the murder of Native American’s on a grand scale with the tragic “Trail of Tears.”) it is good that we can see “how we got here.”

Regardless of Haley’s sins of borrowing liberally in his writing of “Roots” the tale is a moving one.  The mini-series still has a number of episodes to go and is well worth watching. (The performances alone make viewing a memorable experience.)  This time of year sees television slow down. Scripted TV takes a backseat to reality competitions (America’s Got Talent for example) and this is drama with a capital D.

“Roots” is well worth the time spent watching it;  each “episode” of this mini-series is a long one but no worse than watching a feature film.  The only note of complaint is that the History Channel is airing the mini-series.  “Roots” is not, by the late Haley’s own admission, history. It is not non-fiction but an amalgamation, or dramatization, of a reality that existed in early America.

Regardless of the problems of plagiarism this is compelling viewing.  Stop by and check it out and if you have the time, check out the original mini-series to see Burton and Vereen and their power.  The power of “Roots” was all about giving a myth to people who needed it. Myth for myth’s sake.  Regardless of the why, it is a powerful tale and worth watching.

Daisy Award: A Special Award for the Brave of Heart, & Not so Brave.

Before I go into thanking Marilyn over at Serendipity for nominating me for this award, I need to tell where how it got started. I will bow humbly to Marilyn’s apt description of the award and its inception by Subtle Kate – “It is on rare occasion that a connection is available to the creator of an award. This time the beginning link in a chain of unknown number of recipients is Subtle Kate.

In Kate’s own words on June 28, 2012, “I would like to start a new award. It’s called the Daisy Award.  Daisy’s are very sweet flowers, but they are stealth with hardiness. They’ll come up anywhere and beat the frost.  This award is for the brave.”

End of description.

To say that I am thrilled at being nominated for this is perhaps the biggest understatement in history. Sort of akin to Custer’s last words, “Wow, there sure are a lot of Indians over there.” I will apologise to any of Custer’s remaining family, but, I am a Native American descendant and I find the remark both amusing and apropos. Sorry.

The rules for the “new” award are simple, there are but three and they are, like most of these awards, easy to do and not too labour intensive. So here they are:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.

  2. Tell your readers seven unusual things about yourself.

  3. Nominate several worthy Bloggers.

And that’s it, just three little actions that do not require any type of perspiration to perform; just the kind of award that I like to receive.

Now for the first part; the thanking part: I have to thank Marilyn over at Serendipity for including my in this list of brave folks. I have met some truly wonderful folks in the blogging community and Marilyn and her other half (is that still okay to say?) Gary have been special and supportive and damned inspirational to me. For folks I’ve never actually met in person, they have easily become what I consider to be friends. So thank you Marilyn!

Now for the second part: This is the hard one. I have done so many of these “7 things you didn’t know about me” lists, I think I’ll be hard pressed to come up with that many, but here goes.

  1. I am a natural-born pessimist. I expect the worst and if I get anything less than the worst, I am pleasantly surprised.
  2. My great great grandmother (or grandfather, I am a bit hazy on this one) was found by the Trail of Tears by a Calvary patrol as an abandoned papoose (baby). Since his or her parents had obviously died on the trail as so many others did, one of the Calvary patrol riders took him or her in. His name was Sallee and he was French.
  3. My great-grandmother lived to be 93 years old; her daughter (my grandmother) lived to be 101. I’m kind of hoping that longevity is a gene that has been passed on to me.
  4. My father almost died from a tick-bite; he was misdiagnosed and it’s a miracle he is still around.
  5. I have more than 13 scars on my body. I’ve only just discovered another one from when a .22 calibre cartridge exploded while I was (stupidly) trying to force it into a chamber. The copper cartridge case became shrapnel and one bit piece (about a quarter of an inch long) went under my left nipple. While looking at my “new” scars I found where the shrapnel went. The scar is about a quarter to a half-inch long.
  6. Since I have quit smoking – last cigarette on 30 August 2012 – I dream smoke every night.
  7. I’m not really all that brave.

Now for the third part: This was is the impossibly hard one. I would of course nominate Marilyn from Serendipity (and will still mention this fact) although she did not mention any restrictions on nominating the person who nominated you, but this lady has gone through the wars and still has an optimism and outlook that is to be envied. I wish I had her strength. I really do.

I would also nominate the lovely Lorna over at Gin & Lemonade take a look at her site and you’ll see why I think she’s one of the brave. She made a list and she’s checking it more than twice to see if she’s accomplishing any of the landmarks she set herself. She writes a mean blog and I don’t visit often enough. I hope this makes up for my lack of visits, Lorna.

I would also like to nominate Chris over at True Mister Six who started his blog while he was looking for work. He now has work but continues to write his blog as well as being a husband and father. Another blogger that I don’t visit enough; stop on by and have a look, say I sent you.

That’s it for now, I would nominate more but, as I’ve said in the past I’m lazy. All kidding aside, I have accepted the award in the spirit in which it was given and I thank anyone who thinks I am brave.

I do joke a lot about my life and the direction it has veered off into. But that jokey laughing narrative feels to me a little like whistling past the graveyard. It has the tendency to, sometimes, feel like the edge of it is blurring into another feeling altogether. Still, as a wise man once said, “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, tis that I may not weep.” By Byron I think, it was part of a radio spot I did about a million lifetimes ago for a high school play I was in.

The play was The Curious Savage and I played the only straight-man in a play full of lunatics. Kind of how I feel now, the straight-man waiting for the punch line that will conclude my situation and trying to make sure I’ve got the timing right. Because in comedy, like life, timing is everything.

Humour has helped me throughout my entire life. My comic influences in no particular order are: ~George Carlin, The Marx Brothers (especially Groucho), Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Chris Rock… Hell, too damn many for me to list, though I will make sure I get Billy Crystal on the list, because damn it, I just have to. Besides, he looks MAHVELLOUS!

And since I lacked the cojones to actually do stand up comedy, I’ve settled with being able to see the funny side of life.

I also have to add another “thank you” to Serendipity for nominating me for the Blog of the Year 2012. Like I said…I’m lazy!