FACES OF AMERICA
with Henry Louis Gates Jr.
8 p.m. Wednesday, WUNG, WNSC;
7 p.m. Sunday, WTVI.
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Eva Longoria and Yo-Yo Ma have a common ancestor.
It takes a long time and considerable patience to get to that surprise denouement of "Faces of America," a four-part PBS series about family roots by the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. And even with charming celebrities - Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols and Queen Noor of Jordan are among the 12 whose genealogy is explored - the telling can at times be a little wearisome.
But that is perhaps fitting for the subject: watching this solemn, painstaking examination of immigrants' roots is a little like trying to pry juicy family stories from an elderly aunt at Thanksgiving dinner: There are some tedious detours and false starts, but the unexpected details and touching sidebars are worth the effort.
Gates, the film's narrator and writer, put a huge effort into this project, which is obviously dear to his heart. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, Gates is a founder of African DNA.com, and the editor of theroot.com, a site on African-American news, culture and genealogy. He has done two series about African-American genealogy for PBS.
Some may wonder whether heritage and ethnicity really matter anymore in a society that fancies itself postracial.
In the film Gates reveals that like many African-Americans, he has white ancestors, and more European roots than African.
Writers Malcolm Gladwell, Elizabeth Alexander and Louise Erdrich are interviewed. So are chef Mario Batali, television's Dr. Mehmet Oz and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.
Streep's background is less exotic - but more exalted - than most. On one side of her family, her roots go back to founding fathers and a Quaker who left his church rather than cease agitating for independence from the British.
"I know it should make me feel even more important than I already am," she says self-mockingly.
Gates offers revelations
The comedian Stephen Colbert, raised Roman Catholic in an Irish immigrant family, is surprised to learn that some of his ancestors were Lutheran, or, as he puts it, "heretics."
Gladwell, whose mother is Jamaican, is chagrined to discover that one of his Jamaican ancestors was a free colored woman who was a slave owner.
There are all kinds of genetic surprises: Nichols is related, not so distantly, to Albert Einstein, just as his mother used to claim. He says he is astounded that "the thing you've been bragging on, thinking you're a liar, is true."
What is more surprising is how little some people know about their own histories.
Queen Noor, who was born Lisa Najeeb Halaby into a family of Syrian Christian immigrants, says she was the only one in her successful, assimilated family to take an interest in its Arab roots. But she didn't know her grandfather Najeeb was buried in Brooklyn. Gates takes her to visit the gravestone. Queen Noor, who converted to Islam when she married King Hussein of Jordan in 1978, prays at the site.
Her ignorance about her own roots is as telling about the willful amnesia that clouds many immigrants' assimilation process as anything else she reveals. But Gates doesn't ask questions, he answers them.
He tells Yamaguchi, whose parents were born in California internment camps during World War II, that her grandfather enlisted in the 100th Infantry Division and fought in Europe throughout the war, the only Japanese-American in his unit. She didn't know he was a war hero and tears up when Gates shows her a New York Times article about the promotion to lieutenant.
The Longoria-Ma link
Longoria, who is Mexican-American, is not afraid to look at her pie chart and discover that while she is 70 percent European, she is also 27 percent Asian (and 3 percent African).
When told that she has a genetic tie to Yo-Yo Ma, she jokes, "He's Mexican?"
"Faces of America" has moments of pomposity. But America is, after all, a nation of immigrants, and these kinds of stories have a fascination all their own.