Friday, July 29, 2011

The Day I Taught Kunte Kinte About His Roots

Not sure how I got on this "the day I" kick, but whatever. Oh, and btw, this may turn out to be one of those "long road to hoe" stories, so apologies in advance.

In about 1980, producer Susan and I had the dream job. We were given free rein by Golden West Television to "come up with the next Scared Straight" (with which we'd been peripherally involved). Over the course of several months, we shot hours and hours of film for what she envisioned as a documentary about how and why our society is effing up its children.

Along the way, we encountered this cool character named Barney, an old white guy helping kids in Watts and Compton. Two things about Barney instantly come to mind--one, he drank a lot of water, and why? So he'd wake up all night long, climb into his van and patrol the streets looking for youngsters who shouldn't be out. Two, he EMPLOYED kids on weekends to clean up (paint over) the graffiti around town. Sure, they only made a couple bucks, but we're talking six year olds...eight year olds...making their own money while providing a service. Great training, huh?

Yeah, Barney was a gem.

Too bad he didn't make the cut in our film which ended up being about child abuse.

Then one day, as Susan and I sat eating our lunch and catching up on the news (Variety for her, L.A. Times for me), I stumbled across an Op-Ed piece about the tragic death of a guy named Barney.

My hands literally shook as I read the article. Poor Barney. Stabbed to death in his van one night by persons unknown. Susan and I couldn't believe it.

And then it came to us...we already had all that footage of him...why not assemble it into some kind of tribute? All we needed was some interviews with people in the community and a host to narrate the story.

Well, remember. This was 1980. Roots had aired in...what...1977? Somehow we got ahold of LeVar Burton who instantly said yes. (Squeee!) In short order, there we were...driving him in Susan's Honda down to Watts for a day of shooting intros and outros.

Okay, confession time. I've never seen Roots. (Sorry!) I was in graduate school when it aired--no time for TV viewing, so I'd sorta missed the hoopla.

But as soon as we set foot on the sidewalks of Watts...it didn't take long to realize I was in the presence of a ROCK STAR. Crowds of people gathered. Young girls drove by shouting, "Kunte Kinte! Kunte Kinte!"

Yeah, it was a memorable day.

Later in the evening, when we'd finished shooting and driven back to Hollywood, the three of us had dinner at Denny's across the street from KTLA. (Yeah, big budget--we took our star to Denny's.) It was then LeVar told us he'd never been to Watts before.

Actually thanked us for introducing him to another side of his "roots."

Our half-hour film Barney aired locally on L.A.'s channel 5 and eventually garnered a local Emmy nomination. We invited the two young men who'd been Barney's right-hand aides to attend the awards ceremony with us, but they didn't show up. Later they explained that "going over to L.A." was too much of a hassle. How telling, I thought, that they didn't perceive themselves as living in L.A....

We won the Emmy that night, and I was always sorry they weren't there to "bask in the glory." And I wonder, thirty years later, what ever happened to them.

LeVar, I know, kept on being a really cool guy.

2 comments:

Teresa aka Journaling Woman said...

Wow, what a great story. Funny that you hadn't seen Roots. Yep, LeVar did ok. :)

Carol Kilgore said...

Teresa said what I was gonna say. If I'd been earlier I could've said it first.

Happy Weekend!