by Michelle Erica Green

Forget *Generations*, forget "Relics" and "Flashback"; the greatest Star Trek
crossover took place not during an episode, but in the 1988 TV movie *Roots: The
Gift*. The film stars LeVar Burton, reprising his role as Kunta Kinte from Alex
Haley's epic *Roots*, and features Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Tim Russ, and
various actors who've played minor roles in this generation of TV science fiction
series. *Roots: The Gift* has none of the depth of the original miniseries, and
it's full of Christmas-movie platitudes about brotherly love and freedom.
Nonetheless, it's a satisfying viewing experience for the brief moments when
Brooks and Mulgrew are onscreen, particularly together.

The film is set early in the original series, and opens with a raw scene during
which Kunta Kinte undergoes a horrific whipping, until he agrees to accept his
master's new name for him. Admonished by the born-into-slavery Fiddler (superbly
played by Louis Gossett Jr.) not to define himself by what a white man calls him,
Kinte spends the rest of the film attempting both to fit into and subvert his new
life as a slave. He's the property of an abusive plantation owner (Jerry Hardin,
Deep Throat from *The X-Files*), the neighbor of a vicious trader whose
abolitionist son (a miscast Shaun Cassidy) works with the Underground Railroad to
smuggle slaves to the North. The script does a good job demonstrating how
dehumanizing life was for plantation slaves; there are hangings and beatings
while clergy preach that slavery is part of God's plan; one slaveowner decides
not to hang pregnant slaves until after childbirth, in order to retain the
property they bear. The abolitionists make speeches about the wrongness of
slavery more for the television audience than for the characters in the film--
which is riddled with platitudes, pandering, and condescension throughout its
main plot, concerning a plan to free dozens of slaves on Christmas Eve.

Though Burton is the star, Brooks' Cletus Moyer is the most emotionally engaging
character in the movie, which loses interest rapidly following his demise early
in the second half. Kinte and Fiddler first encounter Moyer when he stops to ask
them for water one evening while they're returning from the fields. Asked about
his status as a black man with the clothes and diction of the ruling class, Moyer
produces documents of manumission to show that he's a free man. That situation,
sadly, is not to last. Moyer is pursued and chased down like an animal in an open
field by a band of bounty hunters. Their leader surprises witnesses by revealing
himself to be a her: Hattie Carraway (Mulgrew), dressed in swashbuckling cape,
billowing shirt, and high leather boots, with a pistol in the waistband of her
breeches. Theatrically placing her her plumed hat over her heart, Carraway
announces that Moyer, accused of sedition and incitement to insurrection, is a
felon with a price on his head. She smiles provocatively at the chained, enraged
Moyer, and nasty sparks start to fly. Her accusations prove to be accurate: Moyer
had plans to meet with the abolitionists, in order to obtain a map revealing an
Underground Railroad route to freedom.

While Kinte and Fiddler take up the torch to help the slaves escape, Carraway
chooses to spend Christmas Eve talking to Moyer where he's confined in the
stable--rather than reveling at the Christmas party in the manor house, where
little white girls use black servants to play the camels in a Nativity pageant.
Having already made it clear that she's afraid of no one, Carraway unlocks the
iron collar and cow bells around Moyer's neck, offers him snuff, and gives him an
appreciative once-over. "You're a strong man," she declares. "Come the
revolution, with a thousand like you, I could cause quite a stir." When Moyer
responds that she could help start that revolution right now, she responds that
chasing down slaves is more lucrative than freeing them. She scoffs at his
preachy admonition that there's more to life than financial gain: "You're a man,
that's easy for you to say!"

Set amidst the film's pat assumptions about slavery and freedom, the scene
explodes with irony. Unlike the condescending abolitionists of the manor house,
Carraway is only a racist in the most superficial sense; she helps capture black
escapees because they're already marked as slaves, not out of conviction that
they are in any way inferior to "planter aristocracy." When she looks at Moyer,
she sees a virile man whose gender, not his race, signifies that he's a threat.
She reminds him that for a woman, the alternative to her chosen lifestyle is the
plantation manor, "where I could spend the rest of my life fluttering fans,
swooning--no better than a concubine. Do you see me happy behind a fluttering
fan, Mr. Moyer?" She expects him to understand that she and he are *both*
fighting oppressive Southern culture, so she's not about to let his arguments
against racial prejudice sway her from her twisted feminist freedom. While their
goals are certain to converge one day, she won't put hers aside for his.

This collision of race and gender issues is not only theoretical; the chemistry
between Brooks and Mulgrew makes it shocking, dangerous, a powder keg which could
ignite and burn down the South. There's a terrifying moment when it looks like
Carraway might be willing to barter Moyer his freedom for his body, and an even
more terrifying moment when it looks like he might agree to such a bargain. The
ironic reversal, with the woman in the role of pimp and the man in the role of
whore, is a painful reminder that neither of these people own their bodies, their
sexuality, or their personhood. By the definitions of plantation society,
Carraway and Moyer are both property of the white men who hold power; they retain
their autonomy only for as long as they can defend their own freedom.

Unfortunately, this is the only scene of any depth in *Roots: The Gift*. Moyer is
executed soon after, and Fiddler and Kinte (who are not above laughing at Tim
Russ' character, the prim head of the household slaves in the ostentatious garb
of the higher classes) nobly sacrifice their own chance at freedom to help the
rest of the slaves escape. The final scene, in which Carraway faces off with
Cassidy over the future of the captured insurrectionists, generates tension
largely from Mulgrew's gleeful, goading performance; one could believe that her
character might fire her pistol just for the sheer pleasure of watching her
victims squirm, even if it costs her her own life. But greed is Carraway's
primary motivation, and she gladly sells out when offered cash to let the slaves
go. Despite the threat she continues to represent to runaway slaves, there's a
perverse pleasure in seeing her escape, unscathed and uncompromised to the warped
values of her culture.

You won't learn anything about slavery in this film that wasn't covered in your
high school history classes, and you won't learn anything about Kunta Kinte you
didn't get from the original miniseries, but the complexity of Carraway and Moyer
make this sequel worthwhile. Brooks' performance is nuanced and moving. The
producers of *Roots: The Gift* made several questionable decisions, and killing
his character off in the middle was perhaps the most foolish.

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