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Canadian LAWRENCE HILL’s best selling and award winning novel THE BOOK OF NEGROES hit the small screen last night on Canadian television. This 2007 book finally gets the adaptation it deserves, but not in American cinemas, where you’d think it would be a perfect fit. *After some research it looks like B.E.T. will air the mini-series in February during Black History Month.*
I really hope the international community gets to see this important piece of historical fiction. Don’t let this important piece of art SLIP THROUGH your hands. Our neighbours to the South could really use a strong voice for this community. And non-Black viewers could really use a refresher on the injustices of slavery told on the largest scale since the quintessential decades old ROOTS.
This is not glossed up melodrama like THE BUTLER or a violent revenge fantasy like DJANGO UNCHAINED. This 6-part mini-series is more akin to 12 YEARS A SLAVE and its contemplative nature with the subject. By the end of the first episode our main character has probably been enslaved just as long as SOLOMON NORTHUP was. That said, the story is merely just beginning after the first hour.
We begin upon reflection in 1802’s London with our main character as an aged woman, but we are quickly whisked away to the wild and beautful free landscape of 1745’s Bayo, West Africa when AMINATA was only 11 years old (and free as the sky).
The book began, “I seem to have trouble dying,” as Aminata recounts the tales of her life, the people she touched, the ones she loved, and the tragedies she witnessed. She speaks not from a guilt ridden point of view, but a survivor’s. No matter how the White man tried to destroy her, she always persisted.
The mini-series begins with our introduction to Aminata and her family. Her father tests her knowledge of reading and writing the words of Islam. We then see him test her knowledge of the surrounding areas. She walks home from the forest alone to prove it. But fairly quickly this idealistic society crumbles as slavers from an opposing tribe capture them for coin to sell to the White Man awaiting their cargo on the shore.
BOOK OF NEGROES always manages to put us in the shoes of Aminata fairly effectively. She sees the water and is amazed. She has no concept of it. “The big river touches the sky,” as she puts it. This let’s us know she’s never seen the ocean in a rather crisp and concise fashion – no lengthy exposition is necessary.
The same can be said for her observation of the White man. She thinks they might be ghosts, pale lifeless bodies devoid of colour (life). She doesn’t mean it in the horrifying way we would imagine these deadly specters with today’s knowledge. We know she is to be sold, but she has never heard of the concept. I love that statement, because WE should never know of that concept either. Imagine the world without that concept. I won’t ruin what happens to her family and how she is actually sold as a good or piece of property. Some things are better experienced. I want you to find this series somehow.
The next illumination comes from the slave boat. Aminata observes the horizon. No land anywhere. How horrifying and strange that must be. While the book doesn’t glaze over any details of what the ship smelt like or felt like, the mini-series demonstrates as best as a condensed version of the visual medium can. And the young actress is absolutely mesmerizing, delivering a magnetic performance. Even when her character is silent, she speaks volumes. I hope we see her in the near future leading feature films on the international level.
It isn’t long before we realize how smart our main character is despite her young age. Aminata can read and write and speak multiple languages. She can “catch babies” as a mid-wife. But she is also extremely cunning and adaptable. While some of the novel’s scenes are skipped we still have no problem understanding that this little girl is a valuable commodity. It is once we see how resourceful Aminata is that we understand the White Man’s point of view – people as resources. Our main character is thus very valuable in deed. By the time she is auctioned however the only skills mentioned are the easily observable ones – she is young and a female… or a future investment as a breeder. This priceless little life is sold at a bargain.
By the time the first hour ends, Aminata sets her head down to rest at her new home (a South Corlina plantation) and we jump cut ahead a decade or so. A brilliant transition to be certain. This mini-series will continue with 5 more hours of important historic television. Make sure to tune in or discover this from an alternate means. BOOK OF NEGROES is well worth the discovery. A guaranteed bargain – as it is free to view.
I love historical fiction. I love important characters. I love the blend of both, especially with a societal issue I care deeply about. Why aren’t there more Black History movies? I use the word Black rather than African American because of something a friend once told me. First off, I’m Canadian, so Black friends I’ve had would be African Canadian I suppose, like the author of BOOK OF NEGROES. I called my buddy Black, and asked if that was, you know, appropriate. He said, “Well I’ve never lived in Africa.” And in that regard, a lot of Black people are from Jamaica or the West Indies or somewhere not Africa. Really, we’re all Canadian (or North Americans) despite where our ancestors came from… Alas, I digress.
Where’s the Black History movies? Like ancient history? I want to see the story of the Pyramids, if they were built by North Africans before more traditional Egyptians came to be, rather through wars, slavery, or migration. I want to see a movie about SHAKA ZULU. If you thought of Chaka Khan there, that’s a big reason why. We know more about recent history than anything. We have movies about historical figures from the 60s and 70s, like Malcom X or Martin Luther King Jr. We’ll have the BLACK PANTHER (and I’m not talking about the activists, I’m talking about a Marvel Superhero) before we have a Zulu movie.
We have Biblical epics, and other historical eras represented in cinema, but not one of the greatest and most important African leaders. We have more contemporary movies about Black villains than Shaka Zulu (even if you just count one, like KING OF SCOTLAND’s Idi Amin). Give me an ANGELA DAVIS movie, or a dramatic take on 4 LITTLE GIRLS. Give me anything besides musical / athletic biopics. Another digression… I suppose.
If enough public interest is given to passion projects like BOOK OF NEGROES maybe the historical movie landscape will shift. Even when this series is taken as purely entertainment it succeeds. Every now and again it’s good to be entertained and then be inspired enough to learn more about the subject – whether it’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN leading you to research war, or SCHINDLER’S LIST to examine its victims, or LINCOLN showing us how white people care about injustice, or AMISTAD highlighting the judicial system of property and people, or COLOUR PURPLE helping you understand the emotional effects of slavery – movies can inspire empathy, understanding, and curiousity. Maybe you noticed that all of those movies only came to exist because of a single, solitary, very powerful director in Hollywood: Steven Spielberg. And one man can only do so much. He uses his fame to spotlight history. This luxury should be afforded to more than one man. So I guess this begs the question: Mr. Spielberg, how do you feel about Shaka Zulu?
Tune in next week for the next chapter of BOOK OF NEGROES. Be entertained and illuminated at the same time.
(check out the Canadian TRAILER)
What did you think?
Do you think the jump in time is too abrupt?
Could you do with a whole hour set in Africa? Would you like to know more about their way of life?
What do you think of the young Aminata’s performance? Is it Award worthy come JUNO time?
Did you read the book? Do you like how the adaptation has unfolded thus far?