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|John Amos Interviewed By Parade Magazine||Share:|
'It Hasn't Made a Tremendous Difference'
Thirty years after the ground-breaking TV miniseries, two actors discuss the impact of Alex Haley's masterpiece. In this segment of 'A Return to Roots', Sharon Male of Parade Magazine has a conversation with John Amos, who portrayed Kunta Kinte.
Parade Magazine, May 22, 2007
A Return to Roots: A Conversation With John Amos
Interviewed By Sharon Male
Sharon Male, host: How did you come to be involved in Roots?
Mr. John Amos: The initial script that was sent to me was for another part; I believe it was the wrestler. I said "Yes" because I saw the overall scope of the project and I wanted to be involved. Subsequently, they sent me a second script for the part that was ultimately played by Louis Gossett, Jr., who justifiably won the Emmy. All the time I kept looking at the role of Kunta Kinte. I was hopeful that there might be an outside chance that I would be able to get that role. Ultimately I did get it and the rest, as they say, is history.
Male: What do you remember most about being on the set?
Amos: I have a number of very vivid memories. One was during a break in the filming, when Louis and I were sitting underneath a tree—I think it was the scene in which his character passes away. Louis turned to me and said, "You know, we better eat this up like a good steak, because we're probably never going to get roles like this again." And in truth, I've never had anything that had quite so much impact, not just on myself but on television as a whole.
Male: There are so many powerful moments in the film. Were you angry reliving those terrible events? Were the white actors embarrassed?
Amos: Obviously, we're all professionals, so I didn't address any personal issues I might have had. It was a vindication for me, this role, because as a child I was one of five African-American students to integrate Columbia Junior High School in New Jersey. The only reference made to Africa in my childhood history books was that it was shaped like a pork chop and inhabited by savages. So it was a tremendous vindication for me to play that character and help to rectify some of those stereotypes.
Male: Did you feel that Roots could change the American mindset toward race and identity? That it could really make a difference?
Amos: Well the truth of it is, it hasn't made a tremendous difference. Racism is still part and parcel of the American fabric. We had all hoped that it would enlighten people, that it would bring about a massive social change. It did not. ... Racism is still prevalent, and I think you'd have to be naïve or living under a rock to assume that it isn't.
Male: Do you think there's been any improvement since the '70s? If so, can Roots take any credit for that?
Amos: There's been an improvement in that there seems to be an attempt to bring to justice those who have been perpetrators of hate crimes. But it obviously still prevails. The shooting of Amadou Diallo some years ago in New York, 41 rounds fired into the body of an unarmed man...these things go on and they go on and they go on, North, South, East and West. I'd like to think that Roots enlightened people ... but in terms of being a balm or a salve or a panacea for racism, it did not happen. I think you'd be suffering under a delusion to think that it did.
Male: Clearly it didn't end racism once and for all, but why do you think it didn't have a bigger impact?
Amos: Well, it may have changed some people's hearts and minds, but some folks are so set in their ways that all the documentaries and all the films in the world are not going to change them. They are just hell-bent on perpetuating racism. Some 10 years ago, I was out sweeping my driveway and a neighbor came up to me with an embarrassed look on his face. He said, "Mr. Amos, I don't know how to say this, but Mrs. X asked us to sign a petition to 'get the n----- out of the neighborhood.' " The thing that really grated me was that while this woman was circulating this petition, I was in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Khrygstan doing a handshake with the troops, and the troops were black, white, Asian-American, young men and women who were putting their lives on the line so that this woman had the freedom to go around and get a petition to "get the n----- out of the neighborhood." I was a little taken aback, but I wasn't shocked. Like all African-Americans and most people of color, I've been subjected to some form of racism almost on a daily basis all my life.
Male: Do you think actors can help, even if it's slowly, one person at a time, to change people's minds?
Amos: Oh, of course. There've been a number of characters that have helped immensely. Two that I've played were totally diverse: One was James Evans in [the TV sitcom] Good Times, whose family was meeting the same economic struggles as any other working-class family. One of the things that led to my character's demise was my less-than-diplomatic demands to minimize the buffoonery on the part of J.J., as portrayed by Jimmy Walker, and to emphasize the aspirations of my two younger children in the show. But the writers—whether because of a penchant for perpetuating racism or just being lazy—decided to perpetuate buffoonery and characters that the white American viewing public was more comfortable with. The other character that I feel showed another side of the African-American experience was Admiral Percy Fitzwallace on The West Wing. It was a wonderful role because the subject of race never came up. He was a man who had worked his way up through the ranks to become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was a wonderfully written role, as created by Aaron Sorkin, and it was the best contribution I could make to show that it wasn't necessary for him to engage in Ebonics or do anything other than conduct himself as what he was: the top officer in the military of the United States of America.
Male: Are you working on any new projects now?
Amos: Yes, as a matter of fact I'm working on one that I feel is going to be extremely powerful. It's an historical project. I don't know if you're aware of Amistad America?
Male: I'm aware of the slave ship Amistad, and I saw the movie that came out in the '90s. Are they related?
Amos: Yes. The vessel Amistad is being refitted for a passage across the Atlantic. It will sail to England to commemorate the abolition of slavery and then it will sail on to various former African slave ports. I've been visiting the African continent for the better part of 25 years, and I'll produce and direct the documentary of the passage of Amistad. I feel that this project should rightfully become institutionalized. That dismayed me about Roots, the fact that it has not been made part of our school system—the way my own schoolbooks helped to form my classmates' opinions about who I was and where I came from. I recall vividly, I think it was the 8th or 9th grade, and we were asked to give a little history on our backgrounds. My mom had some vivid memories of what it was like to grow up in the Deep South and that her grandparents had been slaves. She didn't have a great deal of knowledge of Africa because that information wasn't in the libraries, in books, anywhere. You had to rely on what your ancestors had told you in order to have any link to Africa. As I began to travel, and I began to visit the African continent, I realized that not only did I have a genetic link to Africa, but I also have cultural links. It changed my perception about our educational system, as well as my own perspective about who I was and what I had to contribute to the world.
Male: And what do you hope the passage of Amistad will add to children's education?
Amos: We will hopefully have a live feed so that children all over the world will be able to understand what happened during the transportation of millions of men, women and children from Africa to various parts of the world, including the United States, of course, where they became the foundation of labor which helped to build this country. It's something that's been suppressed, it's been hidden, and it's been denied by those who would say, "Well, you're trying to update history." No, we're not trying, we are going to show, to the best of our ability, the impact of slavery on the entire world. Some anthropologists contend that as many as 21 million human beings were taken from the continent of Africa, abducted and enslaved, with millions dying on the Middle Passage, that is, on the way over crossing the Atlantic. You can see evidence of the introduction of slavery in literally every society and every civilization in the world.
(A Conversation With John Amos is presented under the Creative Commons License. © 2007 Parade Publications. All Rights Reserved.)