Not Your Average Slave Movie (A Book of Negroes Review)

February 22, 2015

First of all, I want to reiterate the statement inherent in the title of this blog post: that Book of Negroes, which aired recently on BET, is not your average slave movie. It is a movie about a free young girl in Bayo, Guinea who became an enslaved woman in colonial America; who worked for the British side during the American Revolution; who, when the British evacuated New York, managed, ultimately, to get on the flotilla of ships leaving for Nova Scotia; who, after Nova Scotia was discovered to be a new sort of hell, lobbied British parliamentarians to tailor their plans for a colony in Sierra Leone to fit the “Nova Scotians” (one of the terms used to describe the formerly enslaved people). In other words, Aminata, the lead character and narrator of this historical fiction (portrayed extremely well by Aunjanue Ellis), was Harriet Tubman before Harriet herself was Harriet or even Araminta Ross. She didn’t require Harriet telling her Black Loyalist community her version of “freedom or death” in order to get them to continue on the journey they themselves started.

Second of all, if the history of black repatriation to Africa interests you, read historian Cassandra Pybus’ book, Epic Journeys of Freedom,. This book, which is continental in scope, details some of the foundational stories underpinning Lawrence Hill’s historical fiction novel, known in the US, as Someone Knows My Name (because of potential backlash against the word ‘negro‘). Before Paul Cuffe, before Marcus Garvey, 3,000 formerly enslaved Africans picked Britain over America, chose Africa over Nova Scotia and ardently advocated for the freedom to run their new home, the Province of Freetown themselves. So dedicated to being completely, some of those “Nova Scotian settlers” were tried for mutiny and/or sedition by the British. Some ended up exiled from the Province. Others were sold back into slavery in the Caribbean. The list of people who undertook this historic struggle includes Harry/Henry Washington who had freed himself from enslavement to George Washington; Daddy Moses (Moses Wilkinson), blind, crippled yet still bound for freedom; Thomas Peters, born in what we now call Nigeria, who tried, three times, to escape before finally achieving success as a result of his service to the British during the American Revolution.

The politics of the matter covered, I now want to get to the heart of the matter. The real beauty of Book of Negroes is that it is a love story. It is extremely rare when we get to see black men and black women on the big or small screen loving each other in a way that practically defines the word love. Under the most extreme of circumstances, Aminata and Chekura, despite the dysfunction of their first meeting, are able to bond in such a way that their love survives their initial meeting, decades of enslavement, runaway status in New York, the cold, rocky land of Nova Scotia and ends up in Freetown where Chekura meets his heroic end. There have been love affairs between the enslaved depicted before. The one that immediately comes to mind is between Six-o and the Thirty-Mile Woman, so-called because Six-o walked thirty miles to be with her. Of course Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a fictional exploration of the reality of Margaret Garner but it has been historically demonstrated that the enslaved sort to build and maintain love and familial connections throughout of enslavement, despite the anti-family nature of the institution.

The narrative of most slave movies are usually dominated by men, whether black or white, enslaved or free. From Roots to Glory, from Amistad to Django, the male perspective  dominates. In Book of Negroes, it is a woman, Aminatta herself, who tells her story. Because of that, we, the audience, gets to witness aspects of enslaved women’s lives usually ignored or marginalized. For example, there is the very brief scene where Georgia who, in the hierarchy of the enslaved plantation community, functions as a doctor/mother figure, gives Aminata a tea to drink which would protect her against unwanted pregnancies. There is also the character of Berthilda Mathias, a freeborn woman married to a runaway who Aminata meets in New York.. When Berthilda’s husband gets taken off the ship headed to Nova Scotia by British soldiers (obeying the dictates of the Treaty of Paris which demanded the return of the “property” of America’s founding fathers as well as newly American plantation owners), she decides to relocate her and her daughter to the Georgia her husband escaped from in order to free from slavery. All throughout this movie (and book) the connection the enslaved had to each other was fought for and honored.


**** I don’t know if BET, the channel Book of Negroes aired on, will show it again. However, Book of Negroes can be viewed on the Canadian Broadcasting site.****


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