|Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis),
speaking to abolitionists in London
|Aminata in revolutionary New York
The trip coincides with the stirrings of the Revolution, though Aminata's taste of freedom begins when she encounters free black people, including free black tavern keeper Sam Fraunces (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who is smitten with her. (The depiction of Black Sam, both in Hill's book and the miniseries, takes some liberties, but some contemporaneous accounts apparently did describe Black Sam as a "mulatto" or mixed race person.) Aminata flees to precarious freedom among the city's black encampment while Solomon heads back to South Carolina, and Chekura, having learned of her whereabouts, finds her in the City. He also volunteers for the British side, as does she as an aide to Captain John Clarkson (Ben Chaplin). This creates the conditions for their unqualified freedom and her role as the author of the official Book of Negroes.
|Aminata and Chekura Tiano (Lyriq
Bent), in Nova Scotia
|Cuba Gooding Jr., who
plays tavernkeeper Sam Fraunces
|One of the actors during
a Revolutionary War scene
What works throughout is Aunjanue Ellis's characterization of Aminata. She fully inhabits this visionary figure of resistance, showing vulnerability when required but also conveying an inner fortitude that would have made possible the vast journey she traveled. Lyriq Bent also is strong as Chekura, and though he has less to do and say throughout, he succeeds in embodying the sort of man who could steal through the night, despite all obstacles, to be with her, and who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to atone for actions he could not have fully understood in his youth. Veteran actor Jane Alexander exudes the right combination of liberalism and racism in her depiction of Nova Scotian printer Mary Witherspoon, while Louis Gossett, Jr., as Daddy Moses, radiates joy in his role. I could not, however, stop thinking that I was watching Cuba Gooding, Jr., as opposed to Fraunces, but accepting this I was able to enjoy his scenes. This was true too for some of the secondary actors, who were uneven, but a few, like Matt Ward as Jason Wood, and Stephan James as Cummings Shakspear, endowed their characters with vivacity and gravity. All in all, I was impressed with the rich cast of mostly black Canadian and South African actors, and now want to see them--along with their African American, British, and Afro-Latin peers--much more frequently on screens, large and small.
As entertainment, The Book of Negroes is a triumph, but it also succeeds in its efforts to highlight a still too-little known aspect of American, African American and African Diasporic history. In essence, it presents the history of black Loyalists, who had everything at stake by agreeing to support the British. It also shines a light on the contributions of a black woman who was unwilling every to cede her agency if she could help it, and in so doing, helped to change one of the most abominable systems that has gripped the globe. The novel and miniseries succeed in their efforts to present a fuller social and political economy of the slave trade, of black resistance and freedom, and of a feminist perspective on our histories--and herstories. I recommend, and will say don't forget the popcorn and the tissues for the tears that may come along the way, before you get to cheer at how this particular story does end on a high note.
For more about The Book of Negroes' historical facts and context, BET even has an iPhone/Android app!