Book Of Negroes Review by Word Mason

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From the Tablet Reviews: The Book of Negroes, Episode 1

There comes a time in every generation when television history is made. That history maker for this generation of Canadian television is The Book of Negroes. This televised adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s runaway success premiered on CBC Television on January 7th. 2015, and television will never be the same.

Before I begin my review of the first episode, let me start with providing you a little bit of background on the book the miniseries is based on and some details on the cast. Published in 2007, the book has sold over 500, 000 copies in Canada alone. There has been fantastic support for the book both in Canada and abroad. The book and the show both chronicle the epic tale of a young girl named Aminata in her journey from West Africa to and through various slave holding countries and back home again while surviving the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. All of this is set in the latter years of the 18th century.

The 6-episode miniseries is directed by Canadian Clement Virgo, who is credited with bringing to the screen projects such as Lie with Me, The L Word, and The Listener. It boasts a cast of phenomenally talented actors. The main role of Aminata is played by Aunjanue Ellis, who has been in fantastic productions such as Men of Honor and my personal favouriteUndercover Brother. Lyriq Bent plays her childhood friend Chekura who most would recognize from the Saw series. Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. will also make an appearance later on in the series as Sam Fraunces. Some of his more notable projects include Jerry McGuire and Men of Honor. Louis Gossett Jr., an actor with a long career spanning from the 1950’s including classics such as A Raisin in the Sun (a film I really suggest you see), takes the role of Daddy Moses who also appears later in the series. Accomplished television actor Sandra Caldwell will hold a staple role in this series as a slave by the name of Georgia. She has appeared popular shows such as the Soul Food series and Rookie Blue.

Now that we are all up to speed, let’s get into the good stuff! However, I would like to preface what I am about to say by noting the following:

********************************SPOILER ALERT!!!*************************************

If you haven’t seen the first episode, then I recommend that you stop reading now and go watch it. Here’s the link:

Now go watch it and thank me later. If you have already seen the episode, then let’s get to it! The show starts with Aminata telling her story in London England. In this episode we saw Aminata’s life before she was captured from a village called Bayo. The show quickly establishes what life was like for her and her people. She travelled with her mother, who was a healer and midwife. The show takes time here to provide a lot of exposition with the goal of demonstrating that the people of that land had a complex and nuanced culture. We meet griots (storytellers), midwives, farmers, warriors, and everything in between. We also get tidbits about the proliferation of Islam in West Africa through her father’s conversion. The episode also shows us how slavers captured people for the trade, usually through African mercenaries as ruthless as their employers, who we also meet in this episode.

The show takes its time to allow the audience to emotionally invest in the characters. We fall in love with the young Aminata (played by a talented Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) and her family. Her father is a hard but loving man, and her mother is a compassionate woman who has a strong sense of duty. All of this is shattered in the most brutal way that can be shown on broadcast television, as her father and mother are brutally killed by slave catchers and she is hauled off by the pitiless thugs and clapped in irons. The point here is to shock the audience. We see right away how much suffering the survivors of the slave trade were forced to endure. We watch helplessly as they are starved, frozen, beaten, branded, and raped. Those who resisted and those who they thought would not survive were thrown overboard to drown; a pregnant woman was nearly included in that lot had Aminata not saved her. What is very telling of the ruthlessness of the people profiting from the trade is the sale of Chekura. He was the young boy in the service of the slave catchers who showed Aminata mercy when she was captured, and now is a captive himself on the same ship as punishment for being kind to her. The world of the trans-Atlantic slave is one where the strong survive and the fortunate do not.

I LOVED this episode. Beyond my personal connection with the slave trade as a descendant of the very people who survived such a harrowing journey, as a lover of television and film I found it engaging, enthralling and above all entertaining. The first episode was rich with symbolism expressed through the subtlest of motions in the actors and accentuated by Giulio Biccari’s skillful choice of film techniques.

The actors portraying the captured Africans skillfully demonstrated their terror, ire, and strength, often in complete silence. One of the most striking moments was the branding of the Africans. Fanta, the youngest wife of the chief of Bayo village, stared at the slaver with eyes that could grind a mountain to dust. Her scowl was powerful and expressed a hurricane of emotions without a single word. The actors portraying the slavers did an amazing job of showing a total lack of compassion for the people they captured. The slave ship doctor, with no emotion, ordered people thrown overboard if he did not find them fit for the journey. This was an interesting juxtaposition, with the role of a doctor being one who saves life, and yet in this context, he steals and extinguishes them.

The cinematography was beautiful. Giulio Biccari, the cinematographer keeps the shots close, crafting intimate moments in even the most open of spaces. Take for example the jungle scene where Aminata’s father trained her on how to find home from the jungle. Even though they were in the outdoors, the scene felt intimate, following the action and staying close to the characters in their moment as if we were invited to share it with them. There are few panoramic shots taken in this episode, which are only ever used as establishing shots to indicate their location. Otherwise, there is a focus on the little details, like the mist from breathing in cold air, or the twisted facial expressions of people in anguish.

There are two key themes in this episode: freedom through being an African, and memory. Every time there was a reference to being free, it was somehow tied to Africa. The uprising on the ship was done using the tradition of communication through songs and drumming. The pregnant woman was saved from being thrown overboard because Aminata knew traditional medicine. When Chekura noticed the scars on Aminata’s face and recognized her as one of his own, he loosened and removed some of her chains. Aminata also resists the convention of changing her name from that which her mother gave her to that which the slaver gives her. This is repeated over and over again throughout the episode, even unto her arrival in the United States where the captives she travelled with were referred to as “wild Africans”, noted for being unruly and indomitable.

The theme of memory is almost immediately established in the episode. It starts with Aminata’s mother trying to teach her the skill of midwifery and is farther expanded when her father teaches her how to find her way home. Aminata’s aspiration to become a storyteller is narrated as she watches an elder recount the history of their people. Also, on the slave ship, the captives all beg Aminata to remember their names for fear of dying forgotten.

All told I am eager to see the next episode and I am sure that you are too. From the previews it looks like we get to see Aminata as a young adult. We also become acquainted with her slave master and the dynamics of the plantation she lives and works on. The anticipation is eating me alive!

With that said, I look forward to writing a review for episode 2, so until then, be good to each other!

Love, peace, and harmony,

Word Mason


Interesting facts:

  • The Book of Negroes appears every Wednesday at 9pm on CBC
  • The Book of Negroes was named for a document by the same name that details the lives of 3,000 actual African slaves at the end of the American Revolutionary War.
  • In the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the book was released with the title Someone Knows My Name.



Word Mason, as his name suggests, is a builder with words. Each line of poetry represents a brick to the monuments of lyrical beauty he constructs through his poetry and music. A writer and performer from the age of six, he has had over two decades of experience at the edge of the pen and behind the microphone.  He draws much of his inspiration from his love of ancient history and classical poetry. He has appeared in various programmes on stage and in front of the camera, as well as lending his talent to a multitude of charitable causes His motto is “Your life is only worth what you leave in this world behind you”, and that is his motivation for continuing to develop his art and create memorable works to captivate the listener and reader alike. Contact info:






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One Response to “Book Of Negroes Review by Word Mason”

  1. Samia says:

    I don’t want to say anything at all actually so as to not even let a smudge of my compliment sway the writer from this level of work. this was a fantastic review; i felt i saw the episode without really seeing it. looking forward to the next one. had to say something.

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