Roots Recap: The Only Thing That Is Greater Than You


Part Two
Season 1 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating 2 stars


Part Two
Season 1 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating 2 stars
Forest Whitaker as Fiddler. Photo: Steve Dietl/History Channel

“Part Two” of Roots picks up a decade into Kunta Kinte’s captivity, with Kunta (Malachi Kirby) on the run from the Waller plantation. Alex Haley (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) narrates that Kunta has spent the entire ten years plotting and attempting escapes.

On this particular attempt, he runs into British soldiers just as overseer Connelly (Tony Curran) has him in his rifle sight. “Tooooby,” Connelly calls out in slurry slow motion. Kunta turns and rushes up to Connelly before he can fire a shot, pinning him to the ground — “My name is Kunta Kinte!” — just as he uses the rifle to choke him to death. British soldiers order him to drop the weapon. He complies and tells them that, as a Mandinka warrior, he will gladly fight for the British.

The soldiers take him to a camp full of other defectors and recruits, including Native Americans. “You’re free,” a slave says to a Native American at the campfire. “Why do you fight?” “Free to watch the white man steal my land,” replies the Native American. (That pretty much sets the didactic tone of the first quarter of this episode.) He then reveals some English double-dealing: “The English say white man who fights for King George can keep his slaves.” Kunta befriends Carlton, a young slave who had an eye put out for crying when his mother and sisters were sold off. Gearing up for a battle, the British offer their black and Native fighters pikes, but no guns. It is clear that they are meant to be mere cannon fodder. When Kunta asks a superior if the British will be marching with him and his fellow recruits, the Scottish accented captain says that would be imprudent. Kunta replies, “Then may we have your gun?”

In the nighttime battle, Kunta and the men under his unofficial leadership refuse to advance unless given guns, but they move grudgingly when told that execution is their only alternative. They cross the bridge right into a deluge of American rifle fire. In the chaos, Kunta and Carlton escape into the swamps. Carlton is killed; Kunta escapes by canoe. He paddles by a bunch of slaves moving barrels on the shore, who upon seeing him cover the sound of his paddling by singing work songs, thus keeping their overseer unawares in the distance.

When Kunta finally comes ashore, slave patrollers are waiting for him and greet him as “Toby.” They mock the garment the British gave him, which is inscribed with “Liberty to slaves.” The patrollers tie Kunta to a tree and chop off half of his left foot with an axe. After a frenetic post-traumatic dream that flits through several memories of his family in Africa and various tortures, he wakes up to the angelic face of Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a slave on Dr. Waller’s farm. Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) reunites with Kunta and explains that they’ve both been sold to Dr. Waller (Matthew Goode) to offset the debts of his brother, John Waller (James Purefoy). Dr. Waller’s overseer, Spalding (Dylan Kenin), visits Kunta in the night to threaten him. He is sure that the rumors about Kunta having killed Connelly are true, so he’ll be watching — and he jams a rifle butt into Kunta’s bandaged foot to drive the point home. Belle rushes in to assure the overseer that she’s keeping an eye on Kunta, that she won’t let him escape.

The next day, Belle brings Kunta a change of clothes, but he is too despondent to co-operate. She quickly chastises him for apparently giving up on life. What about the men, women, and children who’ve endured worse, yet carried on regardless? Fiddler remains at Kunta’s bedside, brooding before suddenly snatching him out of the bed and dragging him to a fence outside the slave quarters. Kunta screams in agony the whole way. Fiddler leaves him in a pen with the restless horse. “Your ornery Mandinka ways startin’ to rub off on me,” Fiddler tells him. “So I’m going to have to leave you here and you going to get your own self up.” He leaves Kunta laid out, vulnerable to being trampled by the horse. Kunta has a flashback to his training in the Mandinka camp. He slowly, painfully gets back on his feet. “I am Kunta Kinte!” he says, the mentors from his past echoing in his mind. Belle continues caring for Kunta, and he finally acknowledges her with a sheepish thank you.

Daytime. When a horse breaks loose from the stable, Kunta manages to calm it down using the empathy he was taught in his warrior training. He calmly mounts the horse and rides it over to Dr. Waller, who is visibly impressed. Spalding glowers with envy as, at Belle’s suggestion, Waller promotes Kunta to carriage driver and horse trainer. When Waller departs and Spalding takes the horse away, Belle and Fiddler exchange triumphant grins while Kunta remains ambivalent. He knows it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

That night, Spalding shows Kunta the previous carriage driver hanging from a tree. “He was a quiet one like you, all the while hatching a devious plan,” Spalding says, before he contemplates hanging Kunta as a preemptive measure. Belle frantically intervenes, reminding Spalding that Master Waller expects him to be ready at any moment to drive him to attend his sister-in-law’s imminent childbirth. Spalding lets him go. After the overseer is out of sight, Belle bursts into tears staring up at the hanging corpse.

Daylight. Kunta drives Dr. Waller to a peculiar rendezvous with his sister-in-law, Elizabeth (Katie McGuinness). Later, Kunta and the doctor pass a gathering of white people, as they celebrate victory in the Revolutionary War. “Long live freedom!” Dr. Waller shouts from atop the coach.

Right on its heels is a scene of Fiddler, Kunta, Belle and other slaves mocking this freedom as a minor event in their lives. Hunter and Belle get into an argument about his belief in “African ghosts,” as she calls them. He corrects her: They are not ghosts. They are his people, speaking to him from across the ocean.

Dr. Waller delivers a field hand’s baby, chastising Spalding for disobeying his order to not put her to work while pregnant. He says he’ll take the cost of losing the mother out of Spalding’s wages, and names the newborn boy Noah. Belle and Kunta pray over Noah’s mother, who lies dead in the field. Kunta consoles Belle, who falls into his arms sobbing. After an awkwardly charming scene in which Kunta fumbles a marriage proposal to Belle, there’s an equally charming wedding, tinged with tension from the ever-present overseer circling in the background. Presided by Fiddler, the ceremony sparks a friendly debate over whether the tradition of jumping the broom actually originated in Africa.

The festivities are broken up by a slave from Master Waller’s plantation — it’s time for Kunta to drive Dr. Waller to tend to his brother’s wife. At John’s plantation, the good doctor cradles the newborn while John barely gives the newborn an aloof glance, still poring over some documents. On the return home, Kunta innocently (or not so innocently) remarks on Dr. Waller’s enthusiasm about the birth: “Yes, I’ll bet you love that child as if she were your own.” Dr. Waller becomes enraged and strikes Kunta for insulting his character. Back at his cabin, Kunta explodes, outraged that Waller hit him. “At least we’re together — the three of us,” Belle pleads, gesturing at her abdomen. Belle confesses to having had and lost children and a husband in the past. She fears losing yet again. Kunta vows to protect their child. “He will be a warrior,” he promises.

After Belle gives birth to a girl, Fiddler begins to play Kunta’s mother’s song when a party of slave patrollers interrupt and threaten them. Fiddler distracts the group by insisting that they call him by his real name, Henry, giving Kunta time to run off with his daughter while he fights the patrollers to the death.

Kunta kills the one remaining patroller before discovering Fiddler’s dead body. He then rushes home, determined to escape with Belle and the baby, but she convinces him that capture would be inevitable with a crying newborn in tow. Kunta has a breakdown while telling Belle that the patrollers killed Fiddler. He pulls himself together, names their baby Kizzy, and holds her up to the heavens the way his father did when he was born.

From there, the story jumps several years ahead as a young Kizzy (Saniyya Sidney) and Master Wallace’s daughter, Missy (Genevieve Hannelius), grow to be close friends. Master Waller catches Missy teaching Kizzy to read, but Kunta intercepts him, directing Waller’s rage away from his daughter. The girls watch a tense exchange between Waller and Kunta with tears in their eyes.

Jumping ahead nine more years, the remainder of the episode centers on Kunta imparting his Mandinka warrior training to teenage Kizzy (Emyri Crutchfield). Meanwhile, Dr. Waller anticipates matching Kizzy up with Noah for “breeding,” a prospect Kunta works hard to postpone. However, Noah attempts to escape during a violent storm, and is shot down while attempting to flee. After discovering a road pass Kizzy forged to help him escape, Dr. Waller decides to sell her off.

The selling of Kizzy was one of the 1977 miniseries’ most explosively well-directed scenes, and so it is here as well. Kizzy ends up at the farm of Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in North Carolina. Young Master Lea greets her by raping her in a barn. His wife observes quietly from outside.

After she gives birth to his son, named George after Lea’s father, Kizzy contemplates suicide by drowning with the baby in her arms. Voices of past and present lives — Kunta, Belle, Noah, her grandparents — call her back to life. She determines to tell the child all she knows of their heritage, and so she raises the baby up to the sky in the manner of her father and grandfather.

This installment starts off in such a clunky, baldly didactic fashion that its relative subtleties later on are a nice surprise. Once Corinealdi enters the picture, she elevates and intensifies every scene, as does as Crutchfield’s teenage Kizzy. “Part Two” introduces much more silent interplay between Kunta, Fiddler, and Belle, though the musical score and sledgehammer sound design continue to tell us exactly which capital-letter emotions to feel at every turn, ultimately blunting those delicate edges. Nevertheless, director Mario Van Peebles allows enough air around certain telling moments, as when Kunta turns a simple compliment from Fiddler into a summation of their predicament. It’s an exchange worthy of August Wilson:

Fiddler: You got yourself a beautiful baby girl and a beautiful wife.

Kunta: And master got us all.

Correction: A previous version of this recap claimed that Carlton lost his eye for looking at a white woman. He lost his eye as punishment for crying when his mother and sisters were sold.

Roots Recap: The Only Thing Greater Than You