(Beware, spoilers below!)
If there is one television show you choose to watch this year, make it The Book of Negroes. A six-part miniseries event, it follows the life of Aminata Diallo, the fictional protagonist of Laurence Hill’s book of the same name. It’s a beautiful adaptation of just as beautiful a book, which follows Aminata’s journey from being captured at the age of eleven and sold into the slave trade. I knew from the first episode that I didn’t want to do an episode-by-episode review. So much happens in each segment that to even hint at what happens gives away the plot, and many of the trails and tribulations that Aminata goes through are handled with both grace but brutal honesty.
Like many of the adaptations of late about the slave trade – 12 Years a Slave obviously comes to mind – our central character has some kind of lucky privilege or strength of fortitude to allow their story to continue for so long and to last so we can read it today. Many slaves were not so lucky. The Book of Negroes which the TV show and book is named after is a real document which listed the names of free negroes transported to Nova Scotia by the British after the Americans won the War of Independence. Aminata’s existence gives a voice to the myriad of black slaves that would have been in her position.
During her journey from her homeland to her final end Aminata meets a myriad of people, mainly black but also white, who help and hinder her yearning to return home. As we follow Aminata on her journey we never find out what happens to these people, wether they finally find their happy ending or if they die still in chains. It’s a silent expression that reminds us that for thousands of slaves forcibly taken from their homes in Africa to America, we will never know their story, nor understand the horrors they suffered.
I’m not going to cushion the blow now and say that characters do not die: figures we think are set up for greater development in the show sometimes meet an end which leaves you feeling hollow. Each death feels visibly like a life cut short and it makes you admire Aminata all the more for carrying on. Her indomitable force of spirit carries the whole show, and though many of her personal losses are deep and shocking, she carries own. Her characterisation is not just demonstrative as the strength of those caught up in the slave trade, but also for her sex in general. The value that is placed on her by the men that come into her life (both good and bad), comes not just from her beauty (a trait which is in fact little emphasised in the show), but on her intelligence and capabilities. One might see this as patronising: her first owner sees that she stands out amongst the many ‘negroes’ he owns due to her smarts but in his house she’s still a slave. Confronted with other white men all for keeping the slave trade later in the show (without me spoiling too much), they don’t believe she could have written a personal account of her life all by herself. As an audience we’re aware they’re not just jibing her because of her sex, but also because of the low opinion they have of her race.
The Book of Negroes succeeds as heavy hitting and moving television because director Clement Virgo lays the situation out for you to let you decide how it makes you feel. Of course there are moments when via voiceover Aminata recalls back what she is feeling, or how it impacted her, but Virgo allows the drama to speak for itself. The television show does divert from a book a tad for narrative and dramatic purposes, a move which I don’t think necessarily works in terms of believability, though by way of some characters such as Chakura it does help to provide us with more character development.
Anjaune Ellis is the pivotal heart of the show as Aminata and plays it well. She performs her character as if she is aware that she is a placeholder or a figurehead, a means by which we understand and empathise not just with her but with the thousands of men and women enslaved. Even by the end of the first episode, we’re not just rooting for Aminata, but for the many that would have been like her. We champion their cause to the end. Ellis’ self awareness is played off by the various other characters, from Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Sam, to the strained but rewarding relationship with Solomon Lindo, played by Allan Hawco. Though the changes from the book might be considerably more unrealistic, the sincerity with which the actors buy into their characters’ fate makes the drama very beautiful and undoubtedly effecting.
Before every episode of The Book of Negroes I would feel a slight tingle of anxiety, knowing that I wanted to see what would happen but was scared to. To me, that is a sign that the show was doing what it ought, brining the realism of the story to the audience (I may have cried at the end). The slave trade might seem far back in the past to us now, but the hardships and cruelties that occurred are not something we should be forgetting in a hurry, especially not now. Aminata reminds us that although slavery might be over, the fight is still ongoing, and The Book of Negroes is a strong and powerful reminder of the human spirit in such adversity. As I said, if there is one television show you choose to watch this year (and yes, I am aware it is only February), please make it The Book of Negroes. You won’t regret it.