Billed as being “in the tradition of ‘Roots,’ ” but perhaps closer in scope to its sequel “Queen,” “The Book of Negroes” is an ambitious six-hour miniseries, anchored by the splendid Aunjanue Ellis, slated to air over successive nights on BET. Augmenting its ties to the genre’s past with cameos by Louis Gossett Jr. and Jane Alexander, this Canadian-South African coproduction of Lawrence Hill’s Oprah-blessed novel (released in the U.S. as “Someone Knows My Name”) provides a familiar if sobering account of African-American history circa the Revolutionary War, with all the requisite irony of its “All men are created equal” idealism.
Directed by “The Wire” alum Clement Virgo, who also wrote the screenplay with Hill , the story is told from the perspective of Ellis’ Aminata Diallo, stolen from her family in Africa as a young girl, and sold into slavery in 1761. A skilled midwife, fluent in several languages and able to read (she is admiringly described in a later episode as “the most capable woman I have ever seen”), Aminata eventually becomes the chronicler of the Book of Negroes, an actual document used to register blacks who worked alongside the British during the war and, in the wake of their defeat, were being expatriated to Nova Scotia.
Aminata’s tale, not surprisingly, is filled with abuse and hardship, including her quest to find the child cruelly snatched from her. There’s also plenty of romance and melodrama, starting with Aminata’s unexpected relationship with Chekura (Lyriq Bent as an adult), one of the slavers who transports her to the ship and joins her in the U.S. Once there, she is sold to South Carolina plantation owner (Greg Bryk), where she struggles to stave off his lascivious advances.
Eventually, Aminata escapes by going to work for a Jewish indigo trader (Allan Hawco), before being brought to New York, where debate rages among the enslaved blacks over whether victory by the British or Americans is preferable. There, her circle includes an innkeeper named Sam Fraunces (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who sides with the colonists, while Chekura favors the British.
Although the producers have surrounded her with some promotable names, it’s primarily Ellis’ show, and she conveys Aminata’s perseverance and independence despite all the tragedy that’s heaped upon her. Gossett and Alexander don’t turn up until near the end, the former as a guide to pioneers, a role spiritually similar to the one he served in “Roots.”
Although history obviously mixes with fiction, there’s enough here left under-covered by traditional textbooks to make “The Book of Negroes” an intriguing window into the period. Indeed, for those steeped in a U.S.-centric version of events, it’s worth noting the British are generally the more sympathetic white characters, including Ben Chaplin as an abolitionist who quickly and respectfully recognizes Aminata’s value as a conduit to her community.
Meticulously replicating the 18th century and spanning decades, the show takes a while to get going, and meanders a bit near the end. It’s also difficult to bring much new to this period with all that’s been done already.
Nevertheless, the miniseries represents the sort of dramatic experience BET has too rarely provided, and likely wouldn’t have now without sharing the cost with international partners. And as Aminata’s tome makes clear, each person and generation deserves their own stories.