At one point during BET’s upcoming miniseries, The Book of Negroes, Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Sam Fraunces, a freed slave from Jamaica who runs a tavern in New York, says, “Americans will prove to be a better people.”
The character sounds more hopeful in his declaration than he does confident. After all, the Americans – gleaming from their victory against the British in the American Revolution under the pretense of defeating tyranny, but unwilling to view the Black people surrounding them as worthy of freedom – give them very little reason to. Fraunces makes this statement to Aminata Diallo, played by Aunjanue Ellis, shortly before she intends to board a boat heading to Nova Scotia. Aminata has very little faith in the humanity of Americans and given her experience, kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery in the south, who could blame her?
There are other comments such as “A true American knows what liberty is.” And there are questions, namely those about the name of this country, that astutely denote, “What’s so ‘united’ about it?”
When watching these exchanges, one can’t help but notice how this sentiment is being echoed to Black people in 2014 in the wake of recent events. This miniseries has been in development since 2009, though after five years of labor, couldn’t be anymore timely.
Last week, the fourth hour of the six-part miniseries was screened at the Paley Center for Media. A panel featuring cast members, including Gooding Jr., Ellis, and Louis Gossett Jr., moderated by Michaela Angela Davis followed.
Based on the based on the acclaimed novel by Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes chronicles the little known narrative about Loyalist slaves who were granted their freedom and sent to Nova Scotia. Hill’s novel is named after the real historical document which recorded the names and descriptions of thousands of those Blacks who fought for the British in the American Revolution.
In The Book of Negroes, Aminata serves as record keeper of those names while tackling her own plans for a post-American life. In a previous interview about the miniseries, Lou Gossett Jr., who plays Daddy Moses, a Black slaved who helped lead a band of runaway slaves to freedom, “Slavery is very much involved in this lady’s life, but it’s really a triumphant story about this woman who can tell the story. In that way, it’s better than Roots, and 12 Years a Slave because it’s a portrait.”
What’s better is subjective, though it is significantly different in that it places a fresh spin on a theme through exploration from a female-driven voice.
There is one scene where Aminata stands firmly in front of George Washington in order to challenge him on why he continues to own slaves despite his opinion that slavery will ultimately end in the new country. Ellis displays just as much urgency and sense of self on screen as she does off. She revealed that she felt so passionate about the project that she wrote a letter to help secure the role. Her efforts should not go unnoticed as she does a remarkable job of portraying a complex character.
There have been complaints about whether or not we need anymore slavery-focused movies from various celebrities and commentators. Gossett politely dismissed this line of thinking when he explained during the Q&A that when it comes to these stories, “It gives us the information we need. Get back to African consciousness.”
Not to mention, as Gooding and other cast members revealed, very few people knew about this story. Count me as one of them. I did not know there were Black loyalists to the British army during the American Revolution – as much as 3,000. I did not know the Colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone, which this miniseries tackles, is the first major migration back to Africa. Decades before Liberia and the first in the history of the Americas.
Like 12 Years A Slave, The Book of Negroes adds another complexity to slave narratives. For BET, which is more than three decades old, the miniseries serves as another example of their commitment at elevating their programming. The miniseries will air in February worthy of your time.
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