"GIVE THE CUSTOMERS what they want and always leave them wanting more" is the first law of Hollywood. When every other American watches a twelve hour film unfold every night for over a week—as Americans gladly did for Roots—Hollywood evidently hit upon something the audience wants and hit it big. *
Hollywood's law of the profits gives the social criticism of film its one, modestly reliable assumption. One reasonably believes a movie is socially significant if a massive audience buys it. One may safely assume little else, however, for the law is purely formal and without content. The film critic is as much at sea concerning what is socially significant in an immensely popular film as is the Hollywood impresario when he guesses what will sell. A successful work of popular art is not simply a technical operation, nor is the study of it, and both the filmmaker and the critic must follow his intuitions.
My hunch is that Roots sold splendidly because of its celebration of family solidarity, presently one of the major preoccupations in American popular culture. Working-class family solidarity sells especially well on TV at this time, and Roots supplied it mightily with a family surviving literal slavery. Roots succeeds first as the underside of Gone With the Wind.
To be sure, Roots adds other reliable ingredients for its success. As one candid ABC vice-president said, "We did not buy Roots as a project that would deal with black history," but because "it's a story of greed, lust, and fear, and all the things that make real drama." Including, I should add, rapes, tortures, mutilations, flagellations, murders, and sex. But these ingredients alone do not guarantee a popular success. Twisting the knob any night of the week of Roots' run would tune in those same ingredients on other channels, but the audience stuck solidly to Roots on ABC. Roots even bumped ball games in bars.
Nor can I deny that shrewd advertizing hooked viewers for the first episode, and most of the enticements cleverly whitened this story of a black family. A dozen popular white personalities typed as "good guys" on TV were cast against type as "bad guys" in Roots, and the advance film clips highlighted those familiar white players in their new roles as villains. In my viewing area, one would have guessed that Roots concerned a conscience-stricken white sea captain and his lusty white first mate who clash over the propriety of sexually violating their (largely unseen) black cargo. The commercials were then tagged with that most lurid and suggestive line ever devised for gaining an audience: "Parental discretion advised." But when the mass audience found out Roots really was an emotionally touching and superbly performed story of a black family, it clung to it for four generations and eight nights. In show business this is more than a hit. It is a phenomenon.
Obviously the audience of whites outnumbered the audience of blacks. I suspect a white audience doesn't mind seeing whites as villains if that villainy is in the distant past, if at least a few whites in the film are not villains, and if acknowledging a little obvious villainy spares one from acknowledging a lot of hidden villainy. But more importantly, a white audience will watch black heroes if they uphold what whites believe are their family values. Some Anglo-Saxons especially admire in others what they fear they are lacking in themselves. At another time it was sexual potency; now it is family solidarity. The old envy of the randy black stud and his bitch now shifts to their close and loving family life together with their children and their children's children.
Thus, what is at first a dramatic difficulty—no single protagonist for audience identification for eight days—becomes an advantage. The real protagonist of Roots is the family, and Roots goes further than any current popular cultural artifact toward making the family sacred. As one comic aptly quipped, the Italian family in The Godfather had only vines compared to the black family in Roots.
THE CELEBRATION OF THE holy family in Roots is deeply conservative and male dominated. The author, Alex Haley, strangely saw his genealogical research done when he "found" his nearest free born African male ancestor. He freely admits that "finding" was a mixture of fiction and fact, and he calls the male ancestor Kunta Kinte, a faction." The movie powerfully preserves the penile thrust of that enslaved African warrior down through the American generations of his family. His name is invoked with the awe, wonder, and fascination ordinarily reserved for the holy, and his memory is the family's only touch with a tradition of freedom. (Christianity, especially black Christianity, is conspicuously muted in the saga of Roots, though there is one hymn sung at a wake.) The carriers of Kunta Kinte's tradition of freedom are also male, with Kizzy, his daughter, the exception that proves the rule when there is no man around the house. Women may bear the tradition of freedom so long as it is the tradition of a male ancestor. White or black, apparently no one sings of the "faith of our mothers."
The sacralization of the family and its male patrimony leads Roots into some incredible moments. Against all the evidence the film honestly presents, Roots would have the audience believe that the spirit of revolt was kept alive by black family solidarity and the memory of a free male ancestor. Slaves in the film dismiss Nat Turner's rebellion as an act of juvenile delinquency, an example of how black boys go bad when they leave their families for a wider brotherhood. Roots' unquestioning belief in the primacy of the family surely must be what the audience wants to believe, for without that willing belief much of Roots is absurd.
Consider the moment when Kizzy falls on her knees to beg young Chicken George not to avenge himself on Master Moore who has just raped his mother. She reveals that Moore is Chicken George's sire, his "own flesh and blood," and thus justice for him should be parricide. Master Moore's chronic raping of Kizzy pales into insignificance when judged by the sacrality of the family. Under no circumstances is the family to be endangered by an individual act of revolt, and even toubob rape is lightened when it results in a male who may bear the family tradition—of freedom? Few, I fear, laughed.
What we have at root in Roots is an epic American tragedy, but that deeper and darker story is blunted in the film. The tragedy is the understandable desire for family solidarity and the equally understandable desire for freedom working at cross purposes in black history. It is only when blacks were able to separate themselves from primary loyalty to the family that revolt against white oppression became possible. (Some of us remember this painful phenomenon from the early 1960s when the first opponents of young black civil rights workers were their own families.) Much of Roots suppresses and contains black revolt against white oppression by the sacralization of the black family, and this conservative fantasy helps it become an extraordinary popular success.
The revolt at the end of Roots confirms my point. By the seventh episode, Chicken George, now the patriarch of the third generation of the family, goes abroad with a British nobleman to train his fighting cocks. During his inexplicably long absence the family hears not a word from him or about him. They wait like the faithful upon a distant and silent god. Meanwhile, they mutually console one another through one indignity after another, and Roots makes abundantly clear that emancipation from slavery drove the black family into even greater solidarity, for they were now totally unprotected in a hostile white society.
Roots takes no interest in Chicken George's experience during his years away from the family. But when he returns, greyheaded and worldly wise, he is just what the desperate situation demands; like the cavalry to the rescue he brings something the family cannot supply themselves in their solidarity. He has learned "strategy and tactics," he announces, and more importantly, he has become a spiritually free man. There are now things he will not put up with! And, indeed, he organizes the family to rid them of white harrassment, risks the family in violent and militant action, and successfully leads them north into the promised land. The point to note in this melodramatic conclusion of Roots is that freedom is achieved not by family solidarity but by the leadership and vision of a man who left his family. He returns to them with a different experience (which we never learn), but apparently that experience has freed him from his family so he can be free for them. The last episode of Roots begins to introduce a militancy which undercuts the conservative theme of the previous episodes, and here Roots must end. Developing that new liberating theme would undo the conservative fantasy and render the work far less popular.
INTERESTINGLY, A FEW months later, another skillful work of popular culture raised the question of family loyalty and revolt in a different way. Each episode of Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth reached "only" seventy million viewers, making it somewhat less popular than Roots. On the whole, this "move Jesus" hovers sadly among men and sighs world weary pieties. Many of the prophetic words of the gospels are tranquilized, and the message of salvation tends to trickle away into a spiritual retreat of each man into the sanctuary of his own soul.
But Jesus of Nazareth also has flashes of authenticity, and not surprisingly the few redeeming moments occur when the film stays literally close to the scriptures. At one point Zeffirelli faithfully preserves Jesus' desacralization of the family, one of the few times he shifts from his emphasis upon the Gospel of John to the synoptics. With the recent heavy sacralization of the family of Roots in mind, it was almost shocking to hear: "Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword . .. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me." Since Zeffirelli's Jesus is long on law and short on promise, I should here add the scriptural blessing which follows that warning: "Truly I say to you, in the new world ... every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive manifold, and inherit eternal life."
It goes without saying that the biblical Jesus is not anti-family. He is opposed to the sacralization of the family as well as the sacralization of every other created order, for all orders must be open to the coming Kingdom. In the scriptures Jesus frequently uses the language of the family figuratively to announce the coming Kingdom, speaks of his own relationship to God in familial terms, creates and restores families to serve the Kingdom. But Jesus never makes the family the sacred locus of one's primary loyalties. No revolutionary could, and certainly not the only genuine revolutionary who ever lived.
For all its flaws, Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth fleetingly reminded me of that genuine revolutionary. And, for all its virtues, Roots' alerted me to one of the encroaching idolatires of our time. I haven't the foggiest notion how these two immensely popular movies worked upon one another at the unconscious levels of the mass audience, and I doubt that their cumulative effects, if any, can be assessed with any certainty by anyone. The social criticism of film can only attempt to discern the fantasies which men in the mass buy gladly.
Meanwhile, Christians remain on call to cleanse their minds of the popular cultural fantasies of the world in which they live and to relieve others so beguiled. If that world looks longingly for roots in the past (especially to the past with a personal face, the family), and if the finite meaning there are sacralized as they are now in many successful works of popular culture, then the current cross for Christians is cut out for them. To be sure, the family cannot bear this sacralizing pressure, and eventually this popular cultural preoccupation will recede and be replaced by another. But, for the time being, men and women rooted in the Kingdom of God may need to speak to the sacralizing genealogical passions of the world the words of the resurrection messenger: "Why do you seek the living among the dead?
* The demographic data show that each episode reached an average of 85 million viewers; parts of the series reached 135 million different viewers; and 85% of the TV sets in America were tuned to Roots at one time or another.