Roots: The Gift (1988)
Movie InfoDeviating from the storyline of Alex Haley's book, and the classic 1977 miniseries that followed, the plotline of 1988's Roots: The Gift finds African-born slave Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) and his plantation friend Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.) helping freed black man Cletus Moyer (Avery Brooks) smuggle runaway slaves to freedom. Roots: The Gift was set during Christmas of 1775 because it was slated for telecast during the Christmas season of 1988 -- December 11, to be exact. This telecast was timed to coincide with the posthumous publication of Alex Haley's book A Different Kind of Christmas, which had nothing whatsoever to do with Roots but did concern itself with runaway slaves at Yuletide. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi … More
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Critic Reviews for Roots: The Gift
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Audience Reviews for Roots: The Gift
"I'm dreaming of a black Christmas." (Sorry for that, by the ways) Yup, nothing says, "holiday cheer" quite like the enslavement and suffering of black people. Man, you know that holiday commercialism is getting carried away when a popular series that partially dealt with an enslaved person's refusal to be overruled by the religious views of the Christians who captured him gets its own Christmas special, but hey, this film isn't too overtly Christian, and besides, as liberal as ABC is getting nowadays, it's only a matter of time before we get a special for... whatever it is the African Muslims celebrate during December, the ultimate month for major religious festivities. Really, if no one else is, in a sense, enslaved when it comes to this series, it's LeVar Burton, because just when he thought he was clear from ABC, they pull him right back in from the warmth of CBS, which eventually got this film back. ABC took Burton out of "Star Trek: The Next Generation", and NBC went on to lure this films' Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew and Tim Russ into the "Star Trek" TV series franchise, but then again, in all fairness, this film was just a one-off for ABC, so I don't think that they really care. Hey, at least CBS ended up having the last laugh, because between this film and the "Star Trek" series, Brooks, Mulgrew and Russ found relatively more success in the "Star Trek" shows, largely because people actually remember them, as opposed to this holiday opus. Eh, whatever, this film is still pretty decent, and yet, as entertaining as this delightful Christmas tale about racism and slavery is, it's not all that memorable for several reasons.
As generally genuinely honest as "Roots" is in its portrayal of black slavery, it does boast the occasional lapse in subtlety, something that is, in this film, consistently faulty, for although this series isn't as cheesily over-the-top as it could have been, its portrayal of this series' sensitive subject matter has a tendency to get carried away, not to where realism is thrown way off, but decidedly to where you're likely to be thrown off. This film is hardly anything more than minimalist filler, so I'm not asking for all that much depth, but the final product's subtlety issues dilute the full impact of this subject matter's impact and engagement value, which takes further damage from issues in pacing. As overblown, repetitious and uneven as both "Roots" and "Roots: The Next Generation" are, they rarely played with the risk of slipping into all-out dullness, whereas this film, while reasonably entertaining, has its share of slow spells to break up relatively lively spells, thus creating a kind of pacing inconsistency that makes the bland spots - of which there are quite a few - and the more disconcerting. The relatively dull spots of this film aren't too considerable, but they are here, and that's more than you can say about the relatively dull spells in this film's predecessors, which were't too thrilling, but more consistent in their entertainment value than this film, which further pronounces blandness through a story structure that is somewhat aimless, repetitious and all around rather thin. This isn't exactly the most thin Christmas special out there, partially because, after a while, you forget about the Christmas aspects that accompany this meat subject matter, which still isn't as meaty as it probably could have been, because even though this film has its engaging moments, like I said, it's not too much more than mere filler, and that is its biggest issue. The final product feels rather, to be frank, needless, going haunted by plenty of natural shortcomings to go with unforunate consequential shortcomings, thus making for a film that is just limp enough to underwhelm, then subsequently begin its journey out of your mind as rather forgettable. Of course, as much as the film fails to fully sustain your attention, what you are likely to remember about the final product is likely to be enough to solidify the final product as, if nothing else, adequately entertaining, as well as reasonably well-produced.
A near-epic-scale character study that spans over a century and costs $6.6 million, "Roots" isn't even all that upstanding with its production designs, so of course you shouldn't expect all that much fine production value out of this, but do expect this film to nevertheless deliver on designs that are lively and well-done enough to sell you on this environment adequately. They clearly didn't put too much money into this film, and even if they did, it would be something of a waste, as there really is only so much to this relatively tiny missing piece from an epic, but there is enough inspiration behind this series' production value to liven up substance that, while rich with shortcomings, is lively enough by its own right. Not even quite as long as some episodes of the two miniseries it succeeds, this film's story concept barely has all that much meat on it, being rather thin and aimless, though it's not like this lost chapter in the saga of Kunta Kinte is entirely juiceless, for although there is no denying that we're dealing with mere filler with this film, it is supplementary to the "Roots" mythology's depth, with a degree of dramatic weight, complimented by some enjoyable performances. There's not a whole lot for our performers to work with, yet there is still plenty of commendable acting, as well as certain show-stealers, such as the sympathetic Avery Brooks as a free black man who finds himself punished for offering other black men a chance for freedom, and the surprisingly effectively intimidating Kate Mulgrew as a mysterious bounty hunter. As for our leads, LeVar Burton and Louis Gossett Jr. reunite as well as you would hope they would, sharing sharp chemistry, bookended by engaging and distinct individual charismas that are occasionally broken up by a bit of layered depth that remind you of just how worthwhile the Kunta Kinte and Fiddler characters are. The onscreen talent does more to power this film than the offscreen talent, though that's not necessarily to say that the performance that helps in telling this story from behind the camera is too underwhelming, because even though director Kevin Hooks' storytelling is often more limp than I expected, there is still enough kick to it to provide a consistent degree of entertainment value, occasionally accompanied by genuine resonance. There's not enough of this resonance in this film, which doesn't even need all that much kick to begin with, but there is still enough juice to this project for it to do a decent job of fulfilling its purpose as an enjoyable, if a little too unnecessary additional drop to the "Roots" mythology.
Overall, there are more subtlety issues to this "Roots" installment than usual, and they slow down momentum, though not as much as the unexpected slow spells in storytelling that call more to your attention limp plotting that is itself reflective of the film's being too thin and unnecessary to fully battle back underwhelmingness, whose grip is still not too tight around this effort, as there is enough convincingness to production designs and intrigue to story - augmented by good acting and generally enjoyable direction - to help in making "Roots: The Gift" a reasonably entertaining filler in the "Roots" saga that will serve as a likable time-killer, no matter how flawed it may be.
2.5/5 - Fair
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