You know how every once in a while you come across something simply great? Something that unexpectedly inspires, and leaves you in awe? This is what the Book of Negroes was for me; an accidental treasure which I fell in love with. I stumbled upon one episode as I was randomly musing through the BET channel and I was hooked! I went and bought the whole series from my DVD-guy and binge watched it through one night. Believe me when I say, it is a ‘Must watch!’
Okay let me start by admitting that I never fully watched “Twelve Years a Slave” I would watch and then leave at certain scenes just because it was a bit too much for me. As I tend to have an emotional depression hangover for a few days after a depressing/heavy movie. So obviously I never expected to enjoy anything that shows the intense suffering black people experienced during slavery. Yet this show is different and here are a few reasons why I love it.
It has a strong female character. I’m not an extreme feminist but some things do irk me especially in the entertainment field. The fact that even when there is a female lead she is dependent on a male partner, being one of them. Or even when she is not dependent on a male character, she ends up being a slightly weak female lead. In the Book of Negroes, Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis, “The Help”) captures the spirit of true independence, not only as a woman but as a black woman in a society of white privilege. There is even a scene where she slaps a white man. She is a truly brave spirit who is not afraid to speak her mind if it be truth. A scene later on she questions George Washington on his claim to fight for freedom for all men while he himself hypocritically has slaves. She learns to read and write, and from a young age has an aptitude for languages seeing as she could speak and understand fluently two local dialects before quickly picking up on English as well.
Brilliant subtle Love story. I’m a girl; I’m a sucker for a good love story and an even bigger sucker for the un-cliché ones. Aminata was kidnapped from her home in village in Africa. A little girl not more than nine or ten years old being taken to a slave’s ship on a vast body of water (the ocean) which was the biggest river she had ever seen, she made a friend. The friend being a teenage boy, a few years older than her, and the twist is he was part of the black men who were being payed by the white folk to take their own captive. They bonded and became friends on the long walk to the ship. So much so that he too became a slave as well to be able to go with her.
Though when they reach America and are sold to different slave owners and they are separated. He promises in her ear though that he will find her no matter what. Years go by and he does. Chekura (Lyriq Bent) as he is called, becomes her husband by way of the beautifully simple African American tradition of Jumping over a Broom. Yet they separated again, and again. Oftentimes for years through the series but like he promised her he always finds her and each reunion is enough to leave the hardest of hearts teary-eyed. Their romance also in no way downplays her independence which I like. The loyalty, as well which she has for him is incredible even when they are oceans apart. Their relationship was a beautiful example of actual love.
Black History Awareness. One problem I have had with black slavery shows in the past is the ‘woiye’ sentiment, like we are a people to be pitied. As if our history is something that we should be ashamed of and not proud of. I love this show because in it Aminata knew the worth of her people. Her ultimate desire was to gain her freedom and go back home to Africa. She knew the value of Africa, her people, their traditions and ways. She wanted to be a story-teller. To share what she had seen and done and been a part of. In order to secure her freedom she at one point accepts the offer of British Captain John Clarkson (Ben Chaplin), to compile a census of former slaves who are willing to relocate to Canada. This book was called, “The Book of Negroes.” And she proudly says of it, “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.’”
The Hollywood Reporter states it nicely, “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.”
Incredibly Brilliant Acting. 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 instalment 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 of time and draws you more and more into the heart of the emotions playing out before you. It is edge-of-your-seat-gripping.