There have been many types of Christmas TV specials over the years: the beloved cartoons like A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the stop motion ones like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the musical variety shows like the ones Johnny Cash did, the very special episodes of sitcoms. December 1988 brought us Christmas episodes of China Beach, L.A. Law, Thirtysomething, The Wonder Years, Day By Day, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Just the Ten of Us, 227, Amen, Dear John, Full House, Murphy Brown, Night Court, Perfect Strangers, Punky Brewster, The Tracey Ullman Show (including the Simpsons short), Who’s the Boss, Wiseguy, Beauty and the Beast, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse (still a perennial classic), plus the specials The Care Bears Nutcracker Suite, Christmas in Tattertown (directed by Ralph Bakshi), Bob Hope’s Jolly Christmas Show (special guests Orel Hershiser, Don Johnson, Florence Griffith Joyner and Dolly Parton) and the famous TV movie reunion A Very Brady Christmas.
But do you think it’s weird that there was also a special Christmas movie based on Alex Haley’s acclaimed 1977 slavery mini-series ROOTS? I thought it was kinda weird so I decided to watch it and see what the deal was.
ROOTS: THE GIFT opens with an introduction by Haley and a return to the famous scene of kidnapped Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton, THE HUNTER) being whipped until he accepts his slave name “Toby,” then being comforted by an older slave named Fiddler (Louis Gossett, Jr., THE PUNISHER).
The story takes place “7 years later, Spotsylvania County, Virginia, December 1775,” which I guess is between episodes II and III of the mini-series. (Like the Star Wars cartoon Clone Wars.) While out working in a field, Fiddler and especially Kunta are amazed to meet “Mr. Cletus Moyer, a free man of color” (Avery Brooks, THE BIG HIT), who boldly rides up on a horse and talks to them. The slavedriver is not as impressed.
“Where’d you get that horse, boy?” he asks, like a profiling cop suspicious of a black man driving a nice car. Moyer has to show his papers to prove he’s free. It made me nervous watching him hand over this fragile folded up document, which was a good instinct. This guy gives it back, but soon Hattie Carraway (Kate Mulgrew, REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS) and her squad of raiders chase Moyers and catch him in a net. Later they have him covered in chains and a horrific contraption that hangs bells off of his head, and Carraway rips up his papers of manumission, and that’s that.
Anyway, Kunta is there when Moyer is captured, and he has to be held back from trying to intervene.
Fiddler doesn’t like rocking the boat. He hasn’t experienced freedom like Kunta has, and he has it pretty good compared to some of the other slaves. His “nice massa” William Reynolds (Jerry Hardin, WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, CUJO) invites him into the nicely decorated living room and gives him a new fiddle for Christmas. But before that he gets him to say that his current fiddle is all he has in the world, and then he takes said fiddle, snaps it over his knee and throws it in the fire. Ha ha, just a little Christmas prank among friends, you know.
He loves his instrument, but of course he has it to entertain the white people with it. “Just play, Fiddler!” he’s told. “Play in the joyous spirit of Christmas!” In my opinion there are some un-Christian behaviors these white people are overlooking. Sometimes they really believe they’re being nice when they demean somebody, like when Master Reynolds sees Kunta dressed up for the trip and says “You look almost civilized, Toby!”
Fiddler likes Kunta and wants to help him out, so he arranges for him to be the wagon driver for his trip to play fiddle at the Parker Plantation Christmas party. Kunta has never heard of this Christmas thing before, so Fiddler ends up trying to explain his understanding of of the holiday and the “baby Jesus” he says it’s celebrating. As they’re leaving for the other plantation we hear the end of a conversation that we missed: “I don’t know why they crucifies him. White folks ain’t never had to have no reason for nothin.”
Of course one theme of a ROOTS Christmas story has to be to contrast the misery of slavery with the jolly Yuletide activities of the privileged class. I like the scene of these ladies complaining about being stressed by the holidays and having to wear fancy clothes and stuff.
I mean sure, Moyer, you can be locked up and executed if someone decides to tear up the piece of paper you carry in your boot, but at least you don’t have to wear these uncomfortable dresses!
Carraway doesn’t relate to these women in the dresses. There’s an interesting scene between her and her prisoner. She claims that she “doesn’t give a fig or a damn” for the “planter aristocracy” she catches slaves for. She brags that “come the revolution” she’ll be on Moyer’s side, but freeing slaves right now doesn’t pay like catching them. Great lady, huh?
This relates to a problem we still face. We have straight up racist people, and then we have people who don’t believe they are racist, but are willing to enable racist oppression when they think it will benefit them. That might even be worse.
To put it another way, Carraway says “I chose adventure.” That adventure is a higher priority to her than her alleged belief in equality and freedom tells you something. And it’s true, she’s having fun stopping slaves from escaping and lobbing accusations at Moyer. I think it’s fair to say this lady is a dick.
But there are also people who see what’s wrong in the world and take risks to make things better. When Carraway ripped up Moyer’s manumission papers it was in front of the plantation owner’s son Edmund Parker Jr. (Shaun Cassidy in his last major role before giving up acting). The young man looked concerned, but didn’t say anything. What we find out later is that he’s an abolitionist, and Moyer is (unbeknownst to him) the contact he’s supposed to meet in a cave as part of a plot to free some slaves. While locked up, Moyer gives Kunta what he calls a Christmas gift: a chance to be free. He must go in Moyer’s place to tell his contact “Ciris” that he’s been captured. Kunta accepts this gift, but he needs the help of Fiddler, who knows the area.
Fiddler is reluctant. Afraid of being hanged. It’s not like he’s not interested. He perks up when he’s fiddling at a party and hears the fancy lads complaining about slave revolts.
“Play, fiddler, play! ‘Tis the Christmas season!”
But he doesn’t want to get involved.
His mind is changed… by art! Sort of. It’s the children’s Christmas pageant. He sees the kids dressed as the three wise men, riding on camels. But the camels are played by slaves, including Kunta, with real bits in their mouths.
Kunta is like “fuck this” and stands up, furious. You might expect all the white people to be outraged that he ruined the play, but actually the mother and the little girl Miss Bella (Brandy Brown, The All New Mickey Mouse Club) who was riding him feel horrible and try to apologize for offending him. From their perspective it was an embarrassing misunderstanding. They were told it would be okay.
The well-meaning girl sweetly asks “Would you please be my camel, Kunta Kinte? I won’t hurt you.” We don’t see his answer. But for Fiddler, witnessing this indignity is the straw that finally broke the… you know.
The story of this little girl Bella is interesting, because she’s so clueless, but she’s more enlightened than most of her family. When she finds abolitionist pamphlets hidden under Edmund Jr.’s bed like Playboys she could snitch on him, but instead she talks to him about what they mean. She understands that it’s about “it’s wrong to treat the slaves so mean, what we do to them is cruel.”
Everybody’s gotten real good at pretending otherwise. A Reverend Miller makes the slaves gather round and insultingly preaches to them about how God made them servants. He asks them to pray with him about it. There’s also a house staff who are very close with the family, practically raising the kids, and defending their honor from the other slaves. But when the revolt happens on Christmas Eve that doesn’t matter. The most loyal servant gets slapped. The whole staff get corralled into a room at gunpoint. A betrayed Mammy (Fran Bennett, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE) calls to these people who she seems to almost think of as family, and they coldly look away.
Values have to be perverted in order to make sense out of an insane system like this. Edmund Sr. (John McMartin, THE LAST NINJA) tells his son that he’s not a man since he’s concerned about the well being of the slaves after the revolt.
The climax has Kunta and Fiddler helping a group of slaves try to make a run for it on Christmas Eve. It’s definitely meant to invoke the feeling of Mary and Joseph desperately seeking shelter, and in fact they have to stop for a pregnant escapee to give birth. Kunta is still Kunta Kinte, not Toby, so he holds the baby up, LION KING/Michael Jackson style.
Of course, this is in the middle of ROOTS, so we know Kunta and Fiddler don’t become freemen. This is part of the Christmas message, that they selflessly sacrifice to give others the gift of freedom, and to help each other. It ends with them watching a hill in the distance for a signal, a light, reminiscent of the star in the Nativity story.
Earlier on the Sunday this aired, Fox had A Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas hosted by Dennis Miller. “This hourlong program weaves together vintage clips of rockers such as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John and Marvin Gaye singing Christmas songs.” Surely there were people who watched that, then switched over to ABC and saw Kunta being whipped. That might’ve been upsetting.
Reviews I’ve looked at say THE GIFT is a step down from ROOTS and its sequel series. But I haven’t seen those in decades, so I appreciated this more compact story, and the relationship between defiant Kunta and protective Fiddler. It’s obviously too much of a bummer to sit around drinking eggnog and watching as part of your annual holiday festivities, but I think there’s something profound, and maybe a little subversive, about replacing standard holiday platitudes with a reminder of the people who stood up to the worst of human cruelty. The characters who best exemplify the giving spirit of Christmas are the Africans who never even heard of the fuckin thing before now.
I believe all the directors on the original mini-series were white, but this one is by Kevin Hooks (PASSENGER 57). According to an article in the L.A. Times, ROOTS producer David L. Wolper (WATTSTAX, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) called up Haley and said, “We need a black Christmas story, because there’s none on television.” By coincidence Haley had been jotting down ideas about a Christmas story featuring Kunta and Fiddler. He’s not credited as a writer on the movie, but the teleplay by David Eyre Jr. (EVERYBODY’S BABY: THE RESCUE OF JESSICA MCCLURE) was based on his notes, which also formed the basis of Haley’s novella A Different Kind of Christmas (which was released that month as well).
The book ended up having different characters, but it is also a story about a slave revolt on Christmas Eve. In Haley’s version the young son-of-a-slave-owner turned abolitionist is called Fletcher Randall, and he’s actually the main character. In college, some Quaker friends convert him to the cause and he becomes an agent for the Underground Railroad. His partner, rather than a fiddle player named Fiddler, is a harmonica player named Harpin’ John.
I don’t think ROOTS: THE GIFT aired too many times, and I bet because of its cast it’s most remembered as the answer to a Star Trek trivia question. But it was released on DVD a few years ago as part of a ROOTS box set. Unfortunately they cropped it from the original 4.3 format to fill modern TVs, so sometimes the compositions look awkward. Still, it’s one of those TV movies that feels like a real movie, and it’s a pretty good one.