‘Book of Negroes’ reveals little-known chapter in history
In its first miniseries, “The Book of Negroes,” BET, in partnership with the Canadian public broadcaster CBC, takes a footnote from the Revolutionary War and turns it into engrossing drama.
Airing on three consecutive nights, beginning Monday at 8, the six-hour series — based on the award-winning book of the same name by Lawrence Hill, who co-wrote the teleplay with director Clement Virgo — tells the story of Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis, “The Help”), a woman stolen from her village in Africa and sold into slavery as a child.
Aminata — who comes to be known as Meena in South Carolina, where she lands after a harrowing trip across the ocean — is a fictional character, but her journey has roots in a true story.
Following the Revolutionary War, the British granted safe passage to Nova Scotia and freedom to 3,000 slaves who were loyal to the crown during the war. Only those named in “The Book of Negroes,” an actual document in the holdings of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., were aided in their flight from New York.
Of course, comparisons to the 1977 landmark television adaptation of Alex Haley’s sprawling “Roots” are inevitable. There are certainly parallels, including the devastating kidnapping, the horror of the crossing, the casual cruelty of the auction block, and the fraught life on the plantation. But the makers of “The Book of Negroes” zero in on Aminata’s story, taking one specific tale and illuminating its greater significance.
Beyond how refreshing it is to see a story like this told so singularly from a woman’s point of view, based on the first three hours, the miniseries isn’t lazy about simply plugging in tropes of the period, nor does it merely wallow in what were assuredly miserable experiences.
The characters are fleshed out with multiple layers — at one point Aminata is granted something of a reprieve by a British benefactor, but he is by no means saintly — and moments of easy humor and romance are woven skillfully into the story as Meena makes friends, falls in love, and negotiates alliances, including one with a charming free black tavern owner played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Emmy-winning “Roots” alum Louis Gossett Jr. shows up later in the episodes.)
Much of the weight of the film is placed on Ellis, and like the fierce character she plays, the actress is more than up to the task. Whether lamenting the child stolen from her by an embittered slave master or sharing an easy laugh with Gooding’s character or a love scene with Chekura (Lyriq Bent), the husband she sees sporadically, Ellis displays a broad range. She embodies Aminata’s fire and resilience in the face of some of the most brutal acts of inhumanity without veering into superhuman territory. She knows that she is just one woman trying to survive, but it doesn’t make her any less of a hero. Shailyn Pierre-Dixon is equally compelling as the young Aminata, who shows the cleverness and determination later borne out by Ellis.
Historical tales like this can sometimes feel like homework — like “the right thing to do,” or some sort of Black History Month obligation — but the creative team at work here makes “The Book of Negroes” a tough lesson worth learning.