Review: Book of Negroes takes a bow

It’s a shame for CBC that one of their biggest ratings successes lately is six episodes and done, but it’s a sign of hope that an expansive co-production based on Canadian literature could make such a splash.

Clement Virgo’s adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s novel comes to a close with an episode that sees Aminata reclaim her story once again.

It begins the Nova Scotia contingent still not so free in Freetown, the town they built from scratch, guarded by British soldiers who want them to stay in their little piece of Sierra Leone.

Their past flashes before their eyes as new captives stream past their town on the way to a life of slavery. Moses is killed trying to free a child, a grim reminder of the danger still around them.

Aminata remains determined to return to her village — the village Chekura helped steal her from, and he’s not terribly enthusiastic. “Why do you always make me chase you? We can love each other right here.”

He relents, as do the British slave traders who can help them with passage to the interior, and who sip tea from silver pots as their slaves scrabble for food among their sick and dying.

“Why do you trade in men?” she asks. “Everybody’s doing it” is the less than impressive answer, both for its moral emptiness and its slightly clunky dialogue. “Was it really that bad for you?”

Captain Clarkson is one who knows how bad it is, and who encourages her to return with him to London to convince the government to abolish the slave trade. “We need your story and we need your voice.”

Though Aminata is determined to return to her birthplace, she learns it no longer exists just before she and Chekura are confronted with a group of captives they have the power to free, just as they had hoped someone would help free them as children. Chekura sacrifices his life for their freedom, and a prostrate Aminata is rescued by nearby villagers. “I seem to have trouble dying” she tells them in something of an understatement.

She and Clarkson bond over classic English literature like Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe, and Aminata’s story is at least as epic a stranger in a strange land story as either of those, even when she returns to her birthplace.

With no ties to Sierra Leone anymore, she goes to England to meet William Wilberforce and his abolitionists, eager to hear the gory details of her life — and shape the narrative to best suit their purposes. Instead she pens her own story — The Book of Negroes — and helps them abolish the slave trade (though not slavery itself). In another last act of atonement, Solomon Lindo reappears with her long-lost daughter May, reunited with her now-elderly mother, as Aunjanue Ellis has played her convincingly over an expansive age span.

A weakness of the mini-series has been the compression of an eventful lifetime into 4.5-ish hours. But it’s been a captivating journey despite its flaws.