Two of TV’s most genial educators team up this week as Finding Your Roots marks its 10th anniversary. When Henry Louis Gates Jr. sits down with LeVar Burton on January 16, he pays homage to his former fellow PBS host, who followed up his lead role in the groundbreaking miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots with one of the all-time great children’s programs, Reading Rainbow. The Star Trek alum, Gates says, has educated the public in virtually every role he’s ever had:
"LeVar Burton has changed the way America sees itself … He has embodied the journey of Black people in our country from slavery to outer space, giving us a glimpse of our nation's tragic past while pointing us to a more hopeful future."
But even Burton needed help researching his family’s history, and so he turned to Finding Your Roots. What Gates and his team found stuns the 12-time Emmy winner, which is par for the course on this docuseries, which regularly makes the rounds on social media with its revelations about its famous guests. But those 60-second clips never really focus on the aftermath of those big reveals, which can often be painful. Burton’s portion of the episode is quite moving, and not just because the team’s research fills in the blanks of his distant ancestry. There’s only so much we can do about the past; what Burton discovers about his paternal lineage helps him establish a connection to his estranged father.
The look into Wes Studi’s family history proves just as instructive and compelling. Like Burton, Studi has also made strides for representation — his performances in everything from Last of the Mohicans and Geronimo: An American Legend to shows like The Red Road and Reservation Dogs have lent ever greater nuance to the depictions of Indigenous people in film and TV, and helped bring Native American history to life. Studi’s consideration for the past certainly helps him grapple with what he learns from Gates, even as he’s rattled by it.
Tonight’s episode isn’t to be missed, not just for the history that Gates and his team uncover about these two great actors, but for the broader lesson to be had. Gates asks both Burton and Studi why they believe certain parts of their family histories were either kept from them or just never spoken about, and though they’re distinctive in their eloquence, they arrive at the same conclusion: protection, either from individuals or historically inequitable systems. And you can watch for free tonight at 8:00 PM ET, either by streaming on PBS.org or by checking your local listings.
Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.
TOPICS: Finding Your Roots