Prior to picking up this title from UpcomingDiscs headquarters, The Book of Negroes was a complete unknown to me on several levels. I wasn’t aware of the six-episode miniseries that aired on BET earlier this year, nor had I ever heard of the book of the same name by Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill. Even worse, I was completely unaware of the real-life historical document that served as the inspiration for Hill’s book and this miniseries. So while The Book of Negroes is buoyed by solid storytelling and capable performances, my favorite thing about it is that it shone a light on a part of history that hasn’t totally gotten its due in pop culture.
“I knew from a young age I would be a…storyteller. I would see, and I would remember.”
The real-life Book of Negroes recorded the names and descriptions for the approximately 3,000 African-American slaves who fought for Britain during the American Revolution in exchange for their freedom in the United States. ***18TH CENTURY SPOILER ALERT*** The Americans defeated the British, but the Black Loyalists who fought alongside the Redcoats were evacuated to Nova Scotia as free men in the war’s aftermath. Eventually, some of them moved to Sierra Leone to establish a colony of freedmen in Africa.
On the other hand, The Book of Negroes is very much the story of Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis), who is abducted from the West African village of Bayo in 1761 as an 11 year old (played by Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) and sold into slavery. During her journey to the New World, she forms a life-long bond with Chekura (Lyriq Bent), a sympathetic fellow African slave who was among the group that shepherded Aminata into captivity. Aminata is gifted at “catching babies” — being a midwife — along with being uncommonly proficient with languages.
By Ep. 2, the action has jumped 13 years and “Mina” is a full-grown woman and the property of cruel slave owner Robertson Appleby (Greg Bryk) in South Carolina. Both her language and midwife skills prove useful when Mina grows closer to a Jewish man named Solomon Lindo (Allan Hawco) and his pregnant wife. A tragedy drives a rift between the Lindos and Mina, who ends up in New York in 1775 as rumors of a war between the Americans and British heat up. Mina tentatively aligns herself with the British and goes to work for the losing side in the aftermath of the war compiling the aforementioned Book of Negroes. Her journey eventually takes her to Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and the London House of Parliament, where she testifies about her own experiences in a bid to end the slave trade in Britain. (Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807.)
If you’re keeping score at home, The Book of Negroes covers more than 40 years of an extraordinary — if fictitious — life. Similarly to 12 Years a Slave, this miniseries largely eschews the white savior complex and lets its narrative unfold from the perspective of the people who actually endured these systematic atrocities. The most obvious doppelganger here is Roots, the classic 1977 miniseries that rocked the country when it first aired. Director Clement Virgo has made Book of Negroes a statelier, less emotionally naked affair, but it still makes for a consistently compelling viewing experience.
The first couple of episodes covered more familiar — but still harrowing — territory, including Mina’s treacherous voyage to the New World and her time under a cruel slave master. (Bryk’s performance as Appleby is essentially a basic-cable version of Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave.) As a result, I was more intrigued by the bits of history that were newer to me, including the role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War. (The freedom and independence Americans were seeking from Britain didn’t exactly apply to slaves.) Eps. 3-6 covers Mina’s 1775 arrival in New York Harbor, the exodus to Nova Scotia and the hostility expressed by locals who have to share space with former American slaves (I thought all Canadians were supposed to be friendly), and the establishment of the Sierra Leone colony from scratch. The second half of Ep. 6 reverts back to courtroom drama conventions when Mina is forced to prove the veracity of her traumatic experiences. It’s a blatantly crowd-pleasing moment, but it’s also one that feels earned.
Ellis is a steely, dynamic presence as Mina. The material doesn’t lend itself to theatrics or grandstanding; Mina’s ordeal is actually more of an endurance test. Ellis shows us the crack in Mina’s resolve, which may be unbreakable, but is not unshakeable. (Makes up for the fact that the 46-year-old actress isn’t totally convincing when Mina is supposed to be in her early 20’s in Ep. 2.) Bent’s Chekura floats in and out of Mina’s life, so it’s hard to totally connect with the character. The actor gives a soulful performance, but he’s not a strong enough presence for us to miss him when he’s not on screen.
The two best-known actors in the cast are Oscar winners Cuba Gooding Jr. (as freed man/inn-keeper “Black” Sam Fraunces) and Louis Gossett Jr. (as blind preacher Daddy Moses). Both actors use their natural charisma to lighten up the proceedings, but Gooding gets the weightier material as the more revolutionary Sam clashes with Mina and Chekora when they become Black Loyalists. (Minus points for Gooding’s dodgy Jamaican accent.) Ben Chaplin is also a pleasing presence as sympathetic Redcoat Capt. John Clarkson, which is notable because I don’t remember ever typing the words “sympathetic Redcoat.”
This DVD set includes all six episodes on two discs, and an additional disc loaded with special features. Aminata Diallo may not have been a real person, but this well-made, sprawling piece of historical fiction uses her story to illuminate an underserved chapter in America’s (and England’s) past.