The Book of Negroes (Entertainment One, NR)

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The Book of Negroes mixes fact and fiction, using an invented story to deliver a real truth.

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The Book of Negroes is a historical document listing names and descriptions of some 3,000 African-American slaves who escaped during the American Revolution, and, with the assistance of the British, became free people in Nova Scotia.

It’s also the title of a 2007 novel by Canadian author Lawrence Hill (published in the United States as Someone Knows My Name) that incorporates the historical Book of Negroes into its story. There is also a 6-hour mini-series based on Hill’s novel that aired on CBC in Canada and BET in the United States in January and February of 2015.

The mini-series, directed by Clement Virgo and written by Hill and Virgo, is a work of fiction incorporating some historical characters and events. It tells the story of the Black Loyalists (who were escaped American slaves that earned the right to settle in Canada by fighting for the British side during the Revolutionary War) through the story of an invented character, Aminata Diallo (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon as a child, Aunjanue Ellis as an adult). When we first meet Aminata, it’s 1807, and she’s testifying before a panel of British officials in favor of abolishing the slave trade. Most of the film is told in flashback, beginning with Aminata’s life in a West African village, from which she was kidnapped at age 11 (in 1750) and brought to the United States by slave traders.

Aminata’s life is a series of twists and turns of the good news/bad news variety, as befits a melodrama (and I mean that in the nicest way—Dickens’ novels and Shakespeare’s plays are both full of melodramatic devices, and we don’t think the less of either author for that). Through it all, she displays a strong instinct for survival and an unshakable sense-of-self that allow her to survive a series of trials that would have crushed a person of lesser fortitude.

Bought by a South Carolina planter (Greg Bryk), Aminata is taken under the wing of Georgia (Sandra Caldwell), a slave with a forbidden store of books that Aminata devours. Of course, nothing can protect her from the predations of her owner or keep him from selling the baby fathered by her childhood sweetheart, Chekura (Lyriq Bent). Bought by a relatively humane Jewish indigo dealer (Allan Hawco), she is taken to New York City, where she meets a free black man, Sam Fraunces (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who operates the tavern of the same name (still in operation today). He helps her escape her master and ultimately become a part of the effort to help other slaves make their way to Canada.

The Book of Negroes mixes fact and fiction, using an invented story to deliver a real truth. This particular episode in African American history is probably unfamiliar to many Americans (I first heard about it on a podcast, long after I had taken my last history class in school), and watching the mini-series may spark interest in reading up about the real history. It’s also a model for presenting a fictional story based on an admittedly terrible historical reality (the slave trade) without oversimplifying the moral and political issues involved.

No group gets a free pass in The Book of Negroes. Black Africans are not only victims of the slave trade, but also participants in it, alongside Arabs, British, and Americans. One of America’s founding fathers, George Washington, can produce no explanation for the contradiction between his fight for American freedom from the British and the fact that he owns slaves. The White Loyalists in Nova Scotia aren’t particularly welcoming to the new arrivals, and the British plan to settle former American slaves in the forbidding climate of Nova Scotia seems particularly ill thought out. Individual characters can do good one day and bad the next, just like people in real life, and sometimes they do the right thing for the wrong reason or vice versa.

The 3-disc set includes a generous package of extras, including deleted scenes, two interviews with author Lawrence Hill, interviews with the cast and crew, short documentaries on the Amistad story and the Black Loyalist Heritage Society, and a 28-page illustrated booklet featuring an essay by Hill. | Sarah Boslaugh

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