Courtesy: PBS/Inkwell Films/Kundhart McGee Productions/Ark Media/WNET Thirteen
America is a melting pot. Its history is made up of the stories from the immigrants who settled here from its earliest days. Sadly, many of those stories have been lost because we as a nation have forgotten our roots. We have forgotten from where we came. Now thanks to PBS, a new special has been released that will hopefully re-ignite the fire among Americans to learn their family roots.
“Finding Your Roots”, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a ten part special spread across three discs. Gates interviews many of this great nation’s most famous names, discussing their family roots with them. The famous names come from the world of music, acting, politics, and more. One of Gates’ most interesting interviews comes in the segment featuring musicians and friends Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis. Another was his interview with actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal. And one of the most interesting cross sections shown in this ten-part special comes in his interviews with Doctor Sanjay Gupta, comedian Margaret Cho, and famed personality Martha Stewart. They, along with the other unmentioned interviews, make this special one of PBS’ best to date.
“Finding Your Roots” starts with gates interviewing musicians Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis. Starting the mini-series with this pair of interviews is more than just an interview with a pair of famous musicians. What gates and those behind the camera intended to do with this segment was to try and bridge the racial gaps of our nation. The connection between Connick and Marsalis shows that while people may have different color skin, that’s all that really separates us. Connick admits in his interview that he wanted to be black. He says that he dressed and acted the part. What’s really interesting about this is the discovery that one of his ancestors, James Connick, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. On the good side, it should be noted that James Connick did not fight for slavery. He fought solely for economic reasons. He wasn’t even a slave owner. He was just trying to support his family. Apparently, Harry didn’t know this. But it raises what becomes a very interesting trend that viewers will see as the special moves to other notables.
Just as Harry Connick, Jr.’s roots proved to be rather interesting, so did those of Branford Marsalis. Interviews with Branford’s famed father Ellis Marsalis, reveals that Branford may have actually gotten his musical abilities not so much from his father, but from his mother. Or rather, he got his talent from her side of the family. What’s more, it’s also revealed that one of his ancestors was actually the result of a relationship between a white man and black woman. This brings this very first pair of interviews full circle. Gates tells audiences that despite the popular belief, far fewer African American males were born of Native American blood than believed. Many more will find that they have deeper African American and European roots than Native American. What it seems that Gates is getting at in this first segment is that while the color of our skin is different, blacks and whites may be far more closely related than we think. We need only take the time to look back and find our roots.
Gates’ interviews with Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis are both entertaining and very insightful. They’re just one part of what makes “Finding Your Roots” so impressive. Another interesting pair of figures interviewed for the special is Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s revealed that both are descended from Jewish ancestry. What’s more, Gyllenhaal’s Jewish ancestry is one hundred percent pure Jewish. She admits in her interview some interesting facts that reveal ancestry and genetics play directly hand in hand. Again, viewers will see this pop up a lot throughout all ten parts of the mini-series. What’s really interesting to learn about Maggie Gyllenhaal is that apparently she’s descended from nobility. It’s revealed through investigations and Gates’ interview with her, that Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually descended from King Henry I. And somewhere along the line, she’s also linked to both George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, as well as Shirley Temple, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She showed that she had no clue about any of these links, and just how amazed she was by all of it.
Robert Downey, Jr., on the other hand, had much different roots. He and Gyllenhaal both are children of film makers. And like Gyllenhaal, he too has Jewish roots. It’s also revealed that he has Swiss roots. Unlike Gyllenhaal’s roots, though, he can’t claim connection to any real famous historical figures. Ironically enough, he himself has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood throughout his career.
Musicians and actors were only a tiny portion of the whole that makes up “Finding Your Roots.” Gates also interviewed Sanjay Gupta, Margaret Cho and Martha Stewart. This feature offers perhaps some of the most interesting material in the series. These segments reveal to both the celebrities in question and to viewers some rather unexpected and surprising information. One of the most interesting pieces of information is that Martha Stewart has links back to the Mongols. She laughs in discovering this as she admitted to Gates that her dog is actually named Genghis Khan. What’s more, many of her ancestors also had professions that involved much of what she does today. As noted in previous segments, it seems yet again that there is at least some link between one’s ancestry and one’s own personal genetic makeup. Maggie Gyllenhaal admitted her pleasant surprise at her link to her Jewish ancestry due to her own recent personal choices before her interview. Branford Marsalis’ parents told Gates that he got his musical abilities from his mother’s side of the family. That link is explained in the connection to specific well known acts from the rich history of music.
The roots discovered in conversations with Martha Stewart are the revelations of Margaret Cho’s family. Her interview reveals that one of her distant ancestors was a very well respected member of his community. What’s most interesting in her discussions is that members of her family are not actually Korean. They came from other regions of Asia. She shows her surprise, laughing about it. She tells Gates that this was a surprising revelation, being that her parents always claimed such national pride for Korea. This discovery is made through genetic testing.
Sanjay Gupta’s interview was one of the most moving of the entire mini-series. Gupta shows just how amazed he is by all of the information discovered through the research done for his interviewed. At one point, he even begins to tear up. That single moment is perhaps the defining moment of this entire special. The emotion that he shows is the entire point of the presentation. So few Americans are aware of their families’ histories. It doesn’t matter if someone is related down the line to this famous person or that, or if they are simply related to some random person. It’s that discovery of one’s past is the most important. It can make all the difference in a person’s life. It adds that much more to the nation’s already rich history as a whole.
Gates’ interviews with members of the entertainment community reveal some very interesting notes about them. It also reminds viewers that they might be just as interested if they take the time to do some research into their own family roots. There’s no telling what viewers might find if they take that time. “Finding Your Roots” is proof of that. “Finding Your Roots” is available on DVD now. It can be ordered online at http://www.shoppbs.org.
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