Recap: Book of Negroes Episode 1

To begin I must put this review into context. I have not read The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. This will be my review untainted by previous knowledge of the story. That said…

This is the first of six episodes, featured on CBC in Canada and later this year on BET in the US, directed by Clement Virgo, and produced by Conquering Lion Pictures and Out Of Africa Entertainment. In it we will learn the story of Aminata Diallo and her life as both a slave and a loyalist to Britain during the Revolutionary War.

We open in 1807 in the House of Parliament in England. Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis) is waiting to testify on behalf of the Abolitionists petitioning the Court to end slavery. Her testimony is our story; Aminata is our Djeli (storyteller).

The elder Aminata transports us back to the time of Aminata’s youth (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) in the village of Bayo and we learn she is raised as a Muslim by newly reverted parents. Her mother is a renowned baby catcher who travels freely from village to village and Aminata learns the same skills at her mother’s knee. Her father is the only member of her village who owns a Qur’an. As her story unfolds, we are told that the Man Stealers are targeting the local villages and so as a precaution Aminata’s father accompanies his wife and daughter to a birthing in one of the nearby villages. Coincidentally, it is on this very journey that the young family is ambushed on their way. Aminata is captured and shackled, her parents are left to die in the jungle, and Aminata’s village is set to fire.

The remainder of this episode deals with the treacheries Aminata was subjected to during her journey across land and water, from her village of Bayo (present day Segou, Mali, Africa) to Port Charles Town NC. Coffled to her fellow captives, she makes the long journey across the arid African landscape to where the river meets the sky (Atlantic Ocean) and the awaiting slaver. Along her journey, Aminata is befriended by one of her captors Chekura Tiano (Siya Xaba), who as it happens is also a captive. He had been sold to the leader by his uncle following the deaths of his own parents. Chekura shares his food and water, and unshackles Aminata for her journey – finding favour with her captors I think will be a theme throughout the story as we see this happen in a couple of instances throughout this episode.

The captives reach the shore and are imprisoned at the major slave trading operation located on Bance Island, branded, and then herded onto the slaver. The lead Man Stealer, no longer in need of Chekura sends him to the ship to be traded. Once on the filthy ship Aminata once again finds favour (and value), this time with “Medicine Man” Tom (Nick Boraine). Tom learns that Aminata is not only fluent in many of the tribal languages but she is a capable midwife. An agreement is struck; Aminata assists the Medicine Man, he will in turn help her.

Aminata’s strength of character is evident during this voyage. She avoids Tom’s advances and refuses his attempts to rename her “Mary”. With her position as The Medicine Man’s Assistant, and her assumed innocence of youth, Aminata is granted freedom from her chains and is allowed to move about the ship unencumbered. This freedom leads us to the climax of this installment. Aminata is able to secretly gather weapons and supplies them to her fellow captives. The slaves then orchestrate an ambush using the women in their midst to distract the sailors. Aminata takes refuge behind the ship’s wheel with Chekura providing extra protection from the bloody fight. Ultimately though, their meagre weapons prove fruitless to the well-armed crew. However, Tom the Medicine Man dies in the fight and a woman (Fanta, played by Nondumiso Tembe) who also hails from Aminata’s village is executed for her role in murdering him.

At long last the journey ends and we arrive at Port Charles Town, North Carolina in 1761. It is here that Aminata is sold to Robertson Appleby (Greg Bryk) for five pounds sterling and taken to his plantation. The episode closes with young Aminata falling into a deep sleep in the first comfortable bed she has seen in months and we are instantly transported years ahead with the young adult Aminata (Tenika Davis) being roused from her sleep to go “catch a baby”.

So far I have only a couple minor complaints. I am a stickler for small details and I find that even though they may seem minor, I find them highly unnerving. Early on we see Aminata with her father as she practises her writing. I have to wonder, why is it that a man who knows how to read Arabic is teaching his daughter to write Arabic words in the Latin alphabet? Further, the scene in which Aminata is praying is a very poor representation for Islamic prayers (no female would have situated herself for prayers with her back to a man, at the very least even in the situation as a captive she would have likely positioned herself closer to the vegetation to preserve some sense of modesty).

All in all though, this was a great opening episode and I cannot wait to see what unfolds next. Let me know what you think or perhaps what you are most looking forward to in the next episode in the comments below.