Review: The name’s the thing in The Book of Negroes

The historical book of Negroes finally gets its starring turn in the miniseries The Book of Negroes, and Canada as Canada is poised to show up in the next episode.

In part four, Aminata is recruited to collect the names of every black person who assisted the British during the American Revolutionary War. That ledger will determine who can earn a berth to Nova Scotia and freedom, and the process allows them to claim their names and their stories, and for Aminata to live her dream of becoming a djello — storyteller — for her people and their ancestors.

The U.S. title for the Lawrence Hill novel this miniseries is based on is Someone Knows My Name, and it has a resonance of its own. Stolen from their homes, their families, their continent, the slaves are stripped of so much of their autonomy — often down to their own names. Aminata Diallo, for example, was anglicized to Meena Dee, though she reclaims her name and ultimately her freedom.

Yet in the course of the episode her true name almost costs her that freedom. Though she more than earned her place in the book of Negroes, her name appears on another list: of runaway slaves. She is ripped from the boat and Chekura, who must proceed to Nova Scotia or lose his place forever, while she can challenge her designation as another man’s property in court and sail on a later ship.

Their love is the beating heart of this story, making the scene where they are torn apart again, and the one where they are forced to admit that he aided the slave traders and tore her from her family, particularly heartbreaking.

Her assumption — and mine — is that Solomon Lindo has finally caught up with her. Instead, the supremely creepy Robinson Appleby is making a false claim, denying he ever sold her. Sam proves his love again through actions, finding the only way to counter that claim: he produces Solomon Lindo to testify and bring the papers that prove he bought her — and sold her baby — and then to finally, officially, grant her freedom. She’s as grateful to stalwart Sam as she is unforgiving of Lindo.

Aunjanue Ellis is transcendent in this role, of course. Allan Hawco gives Lindo a regretful sweetness which belies the ugliness of his position. He was a better master than Appleby — played to slimy perfection by Greg Bryk — but selling her baby to a good family and getting her away from the brutal Appleby is still selling her baby, and calling her a servant instead of slave didn’t prevent him from treating her as property.

Her declaration about the new United States: “There is nothing united about a nation that proclaims all men are created equal, but keeps its people in chains.”

There are clunky moments in the episode. Some — such as when Aminata questions General Washington about why he owns slaves if he opposes the institution of slavery — because they come across as jamming a plot point from the sprawling novel awkwardly into the script — and some feel like small missteps in direction or editing. You could almost hear the DUN DUN DUNNNN when Solomon Lindo was revealed in court.

I’m not a fan of voiceovers in general, but in The Book of Negroes it feels crucial to translate the gaps that couldn’t be jammed into the script and explain the time jumps, and to give Aminata her rightful role as the author of her own story.


3 thoughts on “Review: The name’s the thing in The Book of Negroes”

  1. I would have almost have preferred they skip the George Washington bits. Felt a little unnecessary. I missed last week’s episode and the CBC website refuses to show me most of the new episode on either my computer or phone–very frustrating–so this episode was a tad hollow. Generally, I’ve liked this miniseries but I’ve felt that it’s gone too quickly and 6 episodes wasn’t enough to properly tell this story. I thought the first episode was really well done but the following episodes went through events too quickly. Perhaps the transitions weren’t well done and the right parts from the book weren’t always shown. I haven’t read the book and I’ve generally liked this miniseries but I’ve just felt at times it had the potential to be better.

    1. I’m enjoying it very much but agree there’s room for improvement. I’m not sure if it’s the script or editing but it can be quite choppy, which is why I’m grateful for the voiceover to fill in some gaps – but it’s not an ideal solution. It’s telling the story of her life from childhood to old age, spanning continents, so it’s got to be a challenge, but some of the plot points they use in the series do seem awkwardly jammed in without enough context.

      1. That’s also the way I feel. I guess that’s the limitation of a miniseries though, especially one produced from a novel. CBC had no way of knowing that this would do really well in the ratings but what I like about some Brit miniseries is that they commission a miniseries with the intent that if it does well, there can be a sequel miniseries which can tell a continuation of the story. Call the Midwife, for example, was written that way but when it did incredibly well they decided to make a second “series”. Using a Canadian example, Anne of Green Gables did really well but it didn’t try to tell Anne’s life in entirety, just her adolescence and because it did so well, another “mini-series” was commissioned. I almost would have preferred the Book of Negores mini-series to stick to one time period rather than trying to tell the events of Aminata’s whole life. I guess that was difficult though as there were African, Canadian and American partners in this and so it was necessary to show all the settings in the miniseries.

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