“Part Four” opens 20 years after Chicken George’s departure to England. He returns to Tom Lea’s farm to find it abandoned and in ruins. Miss Malizy (Carol Sutton), an elder slave who had always been by Kizzy’s side, sits in a daze on the plantation grounds. She is unable to tell him where his family has gone but offers, “I know where your mom is.”
Miss Malizy takes him to Kizzy’s grave site, marked only by a small slab of stone with a “k” scratched into it. George (Regé-Jean Page) breaks down upon learning that Kizzy died of an illness that started with a pain in her side. He’s astonished to learn that Master Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is still alive, and he goes to the big house to confront him. Lea is now a broken, paranoid old man, sitting among rats and stray chickens. He initially fires a shot at George, until he manages to convince Lea that he is his son. Lea launches into an angry, self-pitying, sentimental rant. He reveals that George’s wife and children were sold off to a North Carolina plantation, which sends George into a rage. Lea had promised to free his family.
On the Murray plantation in North Carolina, Matilda (Erica Tazel) sees her son Tom (Sedale Threatt Jr.) off as he heads out on errands. “You just get home safe,” she says. “It only takes one crazy redneck and Master’s road papers don’t mean nothing.” On his rounds as a blacksmith, Tom visits a free black man who is harboring a fugitive slave named Virgil (Donald Watkins). The free man says he will be moving out of state soon and asks Tom to look after Virgil. Tom grudgingly hides Virgil in his wagon, but must leave him at a roadside when patrollers approach.
George arrives at the Murray plantation, instantly confronted by an overseer and Master Murray’s son Frederick (Lane Garrison), who disarm him, suspecting this “nigger in fancy clothes” of being an abolitionist. He assures them that he is a free man who has come to see his wife. Slaves observing the scene from a distance have the most bitterly funny exchange of the series:
Young slave: You know that ol’ boy?
Old slave: No … he remind me of a man about to die.
The slaves turn out to be two of George’s children. After giddy reunion with Matilda — whom Frederick forced to wait all day before seeing her husband — George also reunites with his boys, then meets their partners and offspring. He learns that three of his children were sold off only weeks after he was sent to England. He vows to never leave his family again.
This rest of Roots’ final installment proceeds down parallel tracks: The whites debate and prepare for secession from the Union, while George compares notes on survival with Matilda and his offspring. Tom is the least interested in these lessons, as he believes George abandoned them all. George’s son overhears Frederick plotting with his lawyer to exploit a loophole in slave laws, whereby after 90 days in the state, his freedom would be rendered void.
Even with the knowledge of Frederick’s plan, George insists on staying: “I ain’t afraid of that boy.” But Matilda convinces him to leave. He has a far greater chance of helping his family as a free man.
George leaves Matilda with the beads handed down from his grandfather, Kunta Kinte. On the road north, George meets Cyrus (T.I.), a sly young slave posing as a free man. From there, the plot thickens into an espionage saga worthy of late Spielberg (though “Part Four” gets by with one of his contemporaries, director Bruce Beresford). Frederick’s fiancée, Nancy (Anna Paquin), confides in George’s son Tom that she’s a spy for the North. Murray’s plantation is a hub for Southern munitions and war plans. Tom begs her not to involve him in this scheme. Frederick interrupts them, oblivious, before the conversation is settled.
The Murray plantation becomes a Confederate encampment as the South gears up for war. Frederick is now a major and Tom is responsible for shoeing every horse. After coming home one night to find Frederick’s men raping his wife, Tom’s decision is made for him: He will join Nancy’s fight. Charles, her “deaf-mute” carriage driver, is also a spy — and he recruits Tom to intercept a Confederate officer en route to Georgia with plans for a new arsenal. Charles and Tom ambush the officers party on the road, but Frederick catches Charles on his way to the Union line.
With the plot exposed, Frederick has Nancy and Charles hanged on the front lawn. George and Cyrus, who proves himself braver and crazier than his peers, escape a battle at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, after Confederate soldiers execute every surrendering black soldier in sight. Today, this atrocity is known as the Fort Pillow Massacre.
We jump to 1865. The slaves of the Murray Plantation wake up to find all the white people gone. A young slave woman rushes up with news: General Robert E. Lee has retreated. The war is ending. A series of reunions and reconciliations follow, which emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of this new Roots as a whole. Matilda’s fervent prayer upon hearing the news of emancipation, for example, is heavenly in Tazel’s hands. The mini-series traditionally undercuts such moments with crude editing and sentimental scoring that might as well have come from a software preset. The effect is like a cool drink of sugary saltwater.
Cyrus ends up at the Murray Plantation, where he inform George’s family that he last saw his friend heading off with a party of armed men to defend newly freed slaves against Confederate bushwhackers. Matilda sends Tom to look for his father and, guided by the spirit of Kunta Kinte, he eventually finds him in Tennessee, wounded after a successful battle against the bushwhackers.
Chicken George’s return to his family is an effortlessly powerful moment, one of the many times across the mini-series that I, an African-American with parents from the South, shed a tear. Credit both the material and the actors. However, it seems reasonable that such a classic, soulful, vital American narrative would have much finer direction than it gets here. Even at its finest, in “Part Three” directed by Thomas Carter, a pall of mediocrity hangs over notes that should soar rather than land on our heads.
Roots concludes with Alex Haley (Laurence Fishburne) getting up from his writing desk to take a spiritual journey to his ancestors. It’s a sweet little curtain call for the cast, set against historical antebellum photographs. In a mini-series that turned moments of poetry into blunt prose, at least this Kodak moment is a refreshingly gentle bit of closure.