"Roots: The Gift" (Sunday at 9 p.m., ABC Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) opens with a galvanizing sequence. Kunta Kinte is whipped until he answers to his new American name, "Toby," instead of his real name. But then old Fiddler, tending the young slave's wounds, advises Kunta not to give up. The music swells while the camera pulls back from the picture of the prostrate Kunta and the determined Fiddler, and we remember why "Roots" took the nation by storm in 1977.
Unfortunately, this scene from the original "Roots" makes the rest of "Roots: The Gift" look second-best (or third-best--this chapter of the saga doesn't approach the power of the first sequel, "Roots: The Next Generations," which was in many ways superior to "Roots").
"The Gift" was conceived (see story on Page 1) as a black Christmas special, and this may be the root of its problem. The Christmas connection is contrived, and it detracts from the clean lines of what otherwise might have been a stirring story about a slave escape.
As the script by D. M. Eyre Jr. notes, Christmas had no meaning for Kunta Kinte--and it still hasn't much meaning by the end of the show. So Christmas is brought in laterally--for example, at the last minute we learn that one of the otherwise anonymous escaping slaves is about to give birth on Christmas Eve. And the escapees signal their success with a flashing light that is supposed to recall the star of Bethlehem.
In one of the stronger scenes, we see Kunta forced to portray a camel in a children's Christmas pageant. But this gives the movie an anti-Christmas tone that doesn't fit well with the seasonal uplift it's trying to inspire.
And on a purely visual level, the Christmas setting apparently mandated the use of snow, which often looks artificial and which wouldn't necessarily fall on a Virginia plantation at Christmastime anyway.
LeVar Burton and Louis Gossett Jr. hold their own as Kunta and Fiddler, but they add no new dimensions. Among the fresh characters, Avery Brooks shines as a freed slave who's helping others escape. But Shaun Cassidy hasn't much of an opportunity to explain why his plantation scion has decided to help the slaves escape, and aristocratic Kate Mulgrew is an unlikely bounty hunter.
Kevin Hooks directed for executive producers David L. Wolper and Bernard Sofronski. "Roots" author Alex Haley delivers a brief introduction, woodenly, but is not credited with any of the writing.