Roots Recap: Dueling Grounds


Part Three
Season 1 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating 3 stars


Part Three
Season 1 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Regé-Jean Page as George, Erica Tazel as Matilda, James Moses Black as Marcellus, Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy. Photo: History Channel

“Part Three” suffers from the same heavy-handedness and shallow imagination of previous Roots installments, but it manages some stirring moments, thanks to a psychologically acute script and subtle performances by Anika Noni Rose and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

The episode opens with Kizzy, now played by Rose, staring listlessly at the ceiling, with Tom Lea (Myers) on top of her. After he’s done his business, she cleans herself up and offers a quiet vow to her father to survive, to not let him down, touching a string of beads he gave her that are hanging near the door.

Kizzy’s son George, now a chubby preteen, studies some chickens in a cage while their caretaker, Mingo (Chad L. Coleman), runs them off with threats. Mingo, a mean, hulking slave, trains these birds to fight in cockfighting contests for cash. Lea drags George along to one of these fights against Kizzy’s insistence that Mingo doesn’t like children. Mingo don’t like nobody. The scene around the cockfight ring is pure chaos; George watches with wide eyes, quickly getting caught up in the suspense of the event. When Lea and Mingo’s bird wins the fight, he is just as ecstatic as his master. After the fight, George learns a new disinfection technique when Mingo orders him to pee on the bird’s wounds.

Kizzy, meanwhile, is secretly teaching Lea’s wife, Tricia (Shannon Lucio), to read. They quickly hide the evidence when Lea storms in with George, still triumphant after the cockfight. He invites George to keep working with him and Mingo, rather than “get sunburnt out in them fields.”

Lizzy and Tricia protest that George is too young to work with Mingo, which would entail living with him out in the barn. “What do you know about children, anyway,” Lea snaps at his wife, “Since you can’t have any.”

Tom Lea is a real piece of work. Of poor Irish heritage, he draws a lot of his bitterness from the prosperous neighboring farmer, who looks down on hardscrabble, new-money types. Rhys-Meyers plays him as a tightly wound coil of insecurities. When George returns from work to his mother’s cabin, bragging about how much Lea and other whites appreciate his and Mingo’s work, Kizzy sets him straight: “[Lea] don’t know how to like anybody!”

From there, the story jumps ahead several years. “Chicken” George is now a fast-talking, charismatic teenager (played by Regé-Jean Page). When he’s not raising chickens or driving Master Lea around town, he pursues Matilda (Erica Tazel), the daughter of Preacher Lyons (James Moses Black). George’s friendship with Mingo deepens in spite of the latter’s paranoia: “I trust my birds and no one else.”

On a losing streak at the cockfights, Lea takes his frustration out on Mingo and George. He is desperate to move up in local society — which to his mind means getting out of farming and banking everything on the birds. George volunteers a bird he personally trained without Mingo’s knowledge. They vie for Lea’s waning trust. Lea decides to go with George.

“Part Three” soon becomes a study in slave economics, full of subtext related to what Kanye West would call the contemporary “new slaves.” George befriends a free black man named Marcellus (Michael James Shaw), who fights his own chickens. Marcellus tells him, “By the way you carry yourself, I thought you were free, too.” George is equally enthralled and disturbed.

Using his skills as a kind of minstrel, George drums up excitement over his fighting bird by comically singing its praises to a crowd of betters. This fattens the purse, so when George’s bird beats the one trained by Marcellus, he and Lea head home with a whole lot of money. Despite losing, Marcellus happily becomes a mentor to George.

George’s ambition — along with the constant social calculations he performs to serve it — drive the narrative for the rest of this episode. He foresees a day when he’ll have saved enough money to purchase his, his mother’s, and Matilda’s freedom.

However, a series of encounters both fortuitous and tragic develop:

  • Matilda’s father meets Kizzy, touching off a debate about “the white man’s religion.”
  • Marcellus meets Kizzy at a gathering, and their chemistry is instantaneous.
  • At the same gathering, Lea is forced to sit at the table with his nemesis, William Byrd (Brett Rice). Lea plays nice until a steady barrage of insults provokes him to slap Byrd and threaten him with a knife. Byrd demands satisfaction, and a pistol duel ensues.
  • Marcellus tells Kizzy that a cockfighting rival invited Lea to this dinner only to stir trouble between the Irishman and the aristocrat. (Earlier, Lea flatly refused to sell George to him.) “The thing about rich white men?” Marcellus says. “They’ll take ten steps at a tilt just to take one step straight to what they want.”

The dinner scene and the duel are two of the most carefully modulated and suspenseful scenes in “Part Three,” the most patiently written, directed, and edited episode so far. Everyone’s stake in the outcome, especially Lizzy’s and George’s, is never out of sight. The total, unforced enmity between Lea and his rival builds to a much more powerful, believable confrontation than the attempted slave-ship rebellion in episode one. Even the drawn out grotesquery of the duel, with each man returning fire after taking a mutilating bullet wound and then taking up swords, makes an astonishing point: This is the grisly essence of so-called gentlemen and their “civilized” tradition.

With George coaching at his side, Lea wins the duel. While Lea recovers in bed, George seizes the opportunity to press him about buying his freedom: He promises to make Lea “damn dirty rich” if his master will guarantee him freedom after they’ve conquered the cockfighting game. It’s a deal.

George marries Matilda, and Lea seethes over the sight of Marcellus and Kizzy dancing at the celebration. Perhaps as a way to flex his muscles, Lea gets George to agree to name his eventual firstborn child Tom. Kizzy later chastises George for dishonoring the memory of her father by accepting the name.

Lea doesn’t stop there. He busts into Kizzy’s cabin as she lays in post-coital bliss with Marcellus. Marcellus throws Lea off by asking to buy Kizzy outright for $2,000. Lea’s financial straits overcome his jealousy — for the moment, at least.

That night Lea corners Kizzy and attempts to rape her, furious that she’d “choose that nigger who looks down on me.” He insists her place is on the farm, “with the people who love you!” She puts a knife near his throat and makes her intentions clear: Leaving her family alone with him is not an option. She will stay to protect her descendants. With that, she hitches up her dress and asks that he “be quick about it.”

And so, Marcellus leaves the county alone, after Kizzy’s tearful good-bye. She collapses onto the ground, calling out to Kunta Kinte in his native tongue.

Three years later, we find George, Mingo, and Master Lea swept up in living history. While traveling on cockfighting business, they stumble upon a party of vigilantes hunting for Nat Turner, the leader of the Southampton slave revolt of 1831. Mingo gets beaten unconscious. The militiamen warn Lea to turn back to his own farm, which might already be overrun by rebel slaves.

Instead, the farm has been ransacked and a barn set aflame by white militia. George searches day and night for his family, finally finding Kizzy deep in the woods. She takes him to a camp where Matilda, his babies, and several plantation slaves are hiding.

Finding Mingo dead upon their return from the woods, George and Kizzy each launch into baldly written theatrical monologues. George confesses to having long known that Master Lea is his father and vows to kill him. Kizzy pleads with George to choose the path that her father would want: to live under one apparent dishonor, rather than the higher dishonor of not carrying the family line forward beyond the horrific present. In Rose’s hands, Kizzy’s monologue becomes an aria, rising just above the din of a sappy musical score.

Mingo, meanwhile, has posthumously left George the gift of a lifetime. Hiding in a bucket of chicken feed, he finds a satchel of coins, likely Mingo’s life savings.

George and Matilda have another son, finally agreeing to name him Tom to appease Master Lea. And, like his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, George takes the newborn out to a clearing at night to perform the ritual handed down from Kunta Kinte’s village.

Four years later, Master Lea and George are still in business, if more at odds than ever. They travel to a cockfight in North Carolina, where Lea’s old dueling rival coaxes him to wager $10,000 on a fight. This battle will either cost Lea his farm or finally move him into the upper class. George demands that Lea guarantee his freedom if they win.

Their bird wins, but Lea’s compulsive gambling manages to botch the victory in a way almost too sad to report. Even sadder is the spectacle of Chicken George, seen from a God’s-eye high angle, dancing in the fighting ring with a feather in his cap after the initial win, shouting, “I’m free!”

The climax of each Roots chapter is traditionally devastating, and that has held true for this new mini-series as well. It will never not be traumatic to watch a loving family get torn apart. George’s dreams, so carefully devised and negotiated across a lifetime, get scattered on the wind, and he gets sent to England in the pocket of some shady hustlers.

Roots Recap: Dueling Grounds