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Revisiting the origins of Oprah

Oprah Winfrey and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explore the talk-show hostess's genealogy in tonight's special.

Oprah Winfrey had a way of dominating "African American Lives," last year's PBS documentary series about the power of genealogy. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was the narrator, Quincy Jones and Chris Tucker appeared, but Winfrey was the star, consuming air time with eloquent turns of phrase and an ample flow of tears.

So it's little surprise that PBS is offering a follow-up, focusing on Winfrey's background alone. "Oprah's Roots," which airs tonight at 8, is essentially an outtake reel from the original series, with unused footage from Gates's interview with Winfrey and additional information about her family tree. The Harvard professor has also written a book, "Finding Oprah's Roots -- Finding Your Own," scheduled for release next month.

As in the original, this is a study in the power of documents, the land and property records that contain remarkable stories of resilience. Oprah is here for telegenic commentary: "Woo! Woo! Woo-hoo! Turn the page! Turn the page!" she says at one point, examining a book of records. She also weighs in with her trademark empathy; it's moving to see her eyes well with tears when she sees written proof that some of her ancestors were slaves.

There's a tiny reference here to Oprah's latest social venture, a lush and controversial school for girls in South Africa. When she learns that her maternal great-grandmother was trustee of a school for black children, she declares, "And now, I'm going to build schools for other girls!" But for the most part, the documentary focuses on her family's achievements within the cruel confines of slavery and Jim Crow.

It's powerful stuff, but in a sense, this approach to the origins-of-Oprah doesn't give enough credit to Oprah herself. That's not to diminish her ancestors' accomplishments; it's just that Oprah's mix of talent, ambition, and savvy has made her life story something different entirely. Just look at how awed Gates -- no slouch in the achievement arena himself -- appears to be in her presence.

"You are the best thing that ever happened to the Kpelle people," he gushes as the closing credits roll, referring to the Liberian tribe with which Oprah shares DNA. "They're gonna change their flag!"

Joanna Weiss can be reached at For more on TV, go to