1977. Hippies were distrustful of more than hypocrites. Hippies — indeed, perhaps most baby boomers — also held a deep distrust of technology. A decade — and an era ago, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey defined the evils of computers, technology, and the establishment. All that was about to change. George Lucas’ labor of love gutted the old fears. R2D2 and the persnickety C3PO made the perfect goof-ball anodynes for the button-down malevolence of HAL 9000. In terms of public reception, the hi-tech future began with this movie. In the process childhood got a reprieve.
“May the Force be with you.”
— Han Solo
And not a minute too soon. At last some optimism. George Lucas' wondrous space opera humanized computers and provided an encouraging take on the possibilities of technology. Conceived as nine movies, divided into three trilogies, Star Wars’ innovative special effects and optimistic plot (that appeared to be a take on the Vietnam War) changed popular culture. This movie, which was later re-titled to Episode Three: A New Hope, injected a much-needed sense of hope to the sagging American spirit. Lucas’ film allowed Americans to look at the future — to look at themselves — with renewed expectations. In the process, a generation known for its anti-technology bent began to embrace it with the fervor of religious converts. In the end Star Wars, supplemented by Steven Spielberg’s ingenious science fiction epics Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., restored pride in what it meant to be an American.
Not bad for a B movie.
* * *
Some of us were unable to proceed into that future without making some sort of affirmation of the past. Americans, blacks most especially, warmed to the warmed-over “history” of author Alex Haley’s ancestry. He claimed to have researched his forebears back to the West African village of Juffure, ultimately relying upon a griot (or native oral historian) to name his ancestor kidnapped into slavery.
“My name is Kunta Kinte.”
— LeVar Burton in Roots
Roots: The Saga of an American Family came to TV the year after it was published. It won the National Book Award and a “special” Pulitzer. One hundred thirty million viewers watched the week-long miniseries in late January 1977, through a blizzard in parts of the country. It was the first time ever black Americans and many whites willingly, if all too briefly, came to grips with their slavery heritage.
The fact that Haley plagiarized parts of the book made little difference to the public. Readers bought a million copies the first year. Its message was too important. He ended up paying $650,000 to folklorist and writer Harold Courlander for stealing scenes from him. Some historians called Roots a novel, others a “fictionalized genealogy.” The best way to look at it was the way Haley himself finally had to consider it — as “symbolic.” He admitted his work was not so much history as an account of mythmaking. “What Roots gets at in whatever form, is that it touches the pulse of how alike we human beings are when you get down to the bottom, beneath these man-imposed differences.”
Few American blacks knew who their forebears were, let
alone much about their West African origins. The miniseries stirred popular
interest in black history. The series held viewers as spellbound in Europe
as in America.
* * *
In July the now faded memories of the Long Hot Summers received a jolt when a power failure in New York City produced several days of rioting.
Life during wartime
— Talking Heads
Though not specifically about the blackout riots, this
lively, apocalyptic tune by David Byrne foreshadowed urban chaos of the
80s, as indeed did the riots. Half an hour after the lights went out for
nine million residents of New York City and Westchester County, thousands
of people took to the streets in a delirious spree of looting, arson and
smash and grab thievery. By contrast, during the more pervasive and lengthier
East Coast blackout of 1965, people stayed home and made babies. This time
they were “mad as hell” and roaring anarchy from hastily thrown up barricades.
Whatever community spirit had existed before had depleted. The downward
spiral into self-absorption and mayhem was complete. “They’re crazy,” one
man told The New York Times. “They’re taking their shoes and breaking windows.
They’re animals.” Another commented, “It’s a lot different from 10 years
ago. Last time people were helpful.”