Airtime:Monday, May 30 to Thursday, June 2 at 9PM on History Channel
Episode: Season 1, Episode 3 (S01E03)
Tweetable Takeaway: In #Roots “Night Three”, we follow Kizzy’s son Chicken George, whose father is his master
The original Chicken George played by Ben Vereen in 1977 is probably my favorite Roots character of all time. The character’s over-the-top and flamboyant ways masked something far deeper. I also thought the character said a lot about the precariousness of being a black performer and entertainer. British-Zimbabwean actor Regé-Jean Page assumes the Chicken George role in 2016 and does a strong job filling Vereen’s shoes.
Chicken George’s life begins with tragedy; his mother Kizzy is raped by immoderate plantation owner Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). As a kid, George only feels at home in a chicken coop controlled by an older slave named Mingo (Chad L. Coleman). Chickens are Mingo’s purview and he isn’t about to lose the relative privileges he enjoys away from the hot fields, even to some innocent kid. Up until this point in the ROOTS reboot, enslaved men and women have worked together, lifted each other up, and rarely clashed. Mingo is the first slave “antagonist” we really see and the fact that he’s taking out his frustrations on a child is even more jarring. And yet, Mingo is sympathetic, too, opening up to George through his unusual rapport with the birds.
Chicken George comes of age on the gamecock circuit with his master (and father) Tom and Mingo, much to the chagrin of his mother Kizzy (now played by Anika Noni Rose). Tom is of poor stock; He’s of the “wrong” race (Irish) and was also born poor, something that these old rich plantation owners don’t hesitate to remind him. While “Night Three” doesn’t have the most jarring moments of Roots 2016, it’s the most coherent and focused episode, dealing with Chicken George’s coming of age under his mother Kizzy and father Tom.
Another reason this episode works is because of how physical and visual it is. The battles on the gamecock circuit continue to mean different things for Chicken George as the days go by. First, as he racks up wins, George finds purpose, marries a preacher’s daughter, and gains Tom’s apparent trust and love. Soon, he’s making money for himself and building a family and ultimately, in a tragic finale, gains and loses his freedom in an instant.
This episode also features a pretty epic duel between Tom and another plantation owner who can’t help but take jabs at Tom’s inferior stock. When the two men are done wounding themselves with guns, they turn to swords, before finally submitting to each other on the brink of death. (Now we know what the Burr-Hamilton duel must’ve been like.) It was just a really well-done scene because Chicken George, who’s right by Tom’s side, also has skin in the game. George urges Tom on just like he does his birds. Why? Well, if Tom dies, who knows where George’ll end up.
Roots also introduces a free black man named Marcellus (Michael James Shaw) who’s meant to jar the sometimes accommodating Chicken George into consciousness. The two develop a friendship and Marcellus grows to love Kizzy. My problem with Marcellus, though, was that he appeared to pop up wherever, spending extended periods of time at the plantation and in town without anyone batting an eye. I’m not sure how a slave master, especially one like Tom, would sign off on something like that. Not to mention the fact that Tom, in his warped way, also has feelings for Kizzy. While I really liked his character, Marcellus just sticks around too long and never gets into any trouble for it.
Fast-forward to 1831, at the exact moment when Nat Turner leads his historic slave rebellion. Paranoia is afoot, with plantation owners going as far as saying that Turner and his men are eating white children. The unstable Tom quickly turns on Chicken George, putting him in chains for the first time and canceling their upcoming chicken fighting tour. When Mingo is wounded, Tom refuses to give him aid and he dies.
Things eventually normalize, and Tom goes all in on a big fight with a wealthy Englishman. He promises Chicken George his freedom if they win, and their bird delivers. But the Englishman makes Tom an offer he can’t refuse and the two birds duke it out again. George’s bird loses this time and to avoid financial ruin, Tom has to sell George to the Englishman.
Ade Adeniji | Contributor