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As one can imagine, the tragedies depicted in the The Book of Negroes, BET’s historical miniseries about an African woman kidnapped and sold into slavery, are almost too numerous to count and difficult to watch.
But as Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis) reminds herself and others repeatedly, one must never give up – and it’s this steadfast hope that makes the story a particularly compelling television event.
Based on the best-selling novel by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes begins in 1761 in a West African village, where young Aminata is helping her mother, a midwife, “catch a baby.” Moments later, she’s snatched from her family and put on a slave ship to South Carolina. Determined to rise above her circumstances, Aminata learns to read, write and speak English and becomes known for her skills as a midwife.
As the story progresses, more characters cross Aminata’s path, for better or worse: There’s Chekura (Lyriq Bent), whom she meets as a girl and who eventually becomes her husband, though the two are often separated for years at a time. She is sold to Solomon Lindo (Allan Hawco), a Jewish man who unwittingly changes her life when he takes her to New York.
Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a standout performance as real-life historical figure Samuel Fraunces, a tavern owner who helps Aminata on her quest to live freely and return home. Also of note are Ben Chaplin as British naval officer John Clarkson and Louis Gossett Jr. as Moses, a blind preacher who encourages Aminata during one of her most hopeless times.
Of course, it’s Ellis’ gripping performance that holds the six-part miniseries together. Except for the first installment that focuses on Aminata’s girlhood, Ellis is present in nearly every scene, aging decades and displaying a stunning range of emotion.
Each hour offers its own harrowing portrait in time, with Aminata facing the continual grief of losing children and loved ones, the humiliation of being treated as property and the anger at people’s unwillingness to change.
“There’s nothing united about a nation that declares all men are created equal but keeps its people in chains,” she declares in New York, resolute in her desire to leave America.
But each small victory in Aminata’s life makes her grow stronger and more confident, whether it’s hearing someone speak her birth name or entering thousands of names in the Book of Negroes, the historical ledger that documented Black British Loyalists who wished to migrate to Nova Scotia. (Side note: In the United States, Hill’s novel was published under the more generic title Someone Knows My Name.)
“It excited me to imagine that, 50 years later, someone might find an ancestor in the Book of Negroes and say, ‘That was my grandmother,’” Aminata says.
The miniseries, which premiered on CBC Television in Canada, marks a significant acquisition for BET, placing the channel in the growing field of cable outlets offering serious fare with high production values. Though perhaps the novel could have been condensed into a feature film, this format fits; in fact, at times, the pace even feels somewhat rushed.
While The Book of Negroes addresses the painful history of slavery in the South, it expands the story to New York, Canada, Africa and beyond – telling it all, of course, from a female perspective. Of everything that can be gained from this production – ratings, critical accolades – perhaps the most meaningful will be if it prompts some to be so moved by Aminata’s struggles that they delve further into the history books themselves.
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