BookofNegroescoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2015, 265 min. (6 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be TV-14 for disturbing content)
Entertainment One/BET Networks
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer/Amazon link 

The Book of Negroes sounds like a politically incorrect Golden Book, but it was really a 150-page document recorded in 1783—a list of black loyalists who escaped being returned to slavery after the Revolutionary War because the British evacuated 3000 of them to work as freemen in their colony of Nova Scotia. In 2007, Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill tweaked and embellished that history to write The Book of Negroes, a still-cringeworthy title that was changed for U.S. audiences to Someone Knows My Name. He invented a central female character and a plot line loosely inspired by historical accounts, and Canadian director Clement Virgo adapted the book into a six-part TV miniseries that premiered first in Canada, then on the BET network in February 2015 for Black History Month.

That’s the background of this excellent miniseries, which rivals Roots for its character development, plotting, and production values. It’s a little more melodramatic than the 1977 Alex Haley miniseries and features a more upbeat (and, many would say, unlikely) story. There’s more idealism here than realism, but that also means it’s not as difficult to watch—though any depiction of slavery doesn’t exactly make for a cheery evening in front of the TV set. Still, for families who are into history and who want their children to gain some understanding of the baggage that many North American blacks carry, The Book of Negroes is a good place to start.

It covers slightly different ground, too. Roots tended to demonize whites and focus on the cruelties that the slaves had to endure and the things they had to do to survive, whereas The Book of Negroes strives for slightly more moral balance. As with every slave movie or miniseries, we see bad slave owners and good. But in Negroes the rapes and consensual sex aren’t nearly as graphic, and neither is the violence. Negroes primarily spotlights a strong heroine, whose journey we follow.  

Aminata Diallo (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) is abducted by slavers from her village in Mali, West Africa at the age of 11. But white slavers have helpers, and an equally young West African named Chekura (Siya Xaba) is paid to assist. He takes a shine to young Aminata and is kind to her, yet he doesn’t do anything to keep her from being sent across “the big river” to South Carolina, where she’s sold to plantation owner named Robertson Appleby (Grey Bryk).

BookofNegroesscreenTime passes and Aunjanue Ellis takes over the role of Aminata, while Lyriq Bent does the same with the character of Chekura. And they’re both excellent. A strong performance was needed to carry the series, and Ellis delivers just the right blend of defiance, determination, and dignity. We quickly care about her character’s struggles and can’t help but admire her stubbornness and near-charismatic refusal to be anything less than who she knows she can be. This is her story, a story of one woman’s journey through slavery that started in Africa and would end in England. Aminata attracts people to her with her positive attitude, so that she never wants for helpers. At the Appleby plantation a female slave with some power protects her from the advances of her owner, and after that the white and privileged wife of a New York City Jew who helps her read at a higher level and urges her husband to get her away from Appleby. In New York City it’s a free black bar owner nicknamed Black Sam (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who helps, while in Nova Scotia it’s an old beat-up preacher named Daddy Moses (Louis Gossett Jr., who also starred in Roots). But for every person who helps her, it seems that Aminata helps dozens more.

The Book of Negroes feels a bit like a fable, because Aminata is proof positive that knowledge—the ability to read, to write, and to speak more than one language—is, if not power, at least a ticket to opportunities and a life that demands respect. There isn’t a better poster child for education than Aminata Diallo. She alone has knowledge of the midwife’s skills, taught to her by her mother, and she learns to read and write at an early age. Those skills elevate her in and give her the ability to move in three different circles: the rebels, the Tories and British occupiers, and the mixture of free and runaway slave blacks that live in a ramshackle New York City tent village.

A largely unknown cast does a fine job, with the only uneven performance coming from Gooding Jr., whose character is Jamaican and who can’t seem to settle on a dialect. But his character is drawn so sympathetically that even this misstep is easy to overlook. Same with the plotting, which can seem, at times, as facile as a melodrama, because The Book of Negroes shines on two levels: as a compelling journey of a noble and strong female character, and as a glimpse into the life of slaves and free blacks that’s situated smack in the middle of a festering colonial uprising, rather than the usual pre-Civil War settings.

Included with this DVD is a booklet that features an essay from novelist Hill, a map of Aminata’s journey, and full cast credits.

Language: Racist (n-word) throughout, other mild cursing
Sex: Forced and consensual, with some (but not key) body parts shown
Violence: Implied beheading, people stabbed and shot
Adult Situations: Girl taken from mother and sold, slave mistreatment
Takeaway: Education helps you get ahead in the world, and one person can make a difference

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