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Featured TV on DVD Review: The Book of Negroes

April 25th, 2015

The Book of Negroes - Buy from Amazon: DVD

The Book of Negroes is an award-winning Canadian novel by Lawrence Hill that came out in 2007. It was turned into a six-part TV mini-series, also called The Book of Negroes that aired in its native Canada early this year. The mini-series earned the best ratings for an original program in 25 years. So it was a popular mini-series, but is it also award-worthy like the book was? Are there enough extras on the three-disc DVD to be worth picking up?

The Show

The series begins in London in 1807 where we meet an adult Aminata Diallo. She's there to speak in front of a parliamentary committee on slavery. She explains where she was born and how she knew from a young age that she would be a storyteller. She would observe and remember.

We then flash back to when Aminata was a child living in her village. Her father makes jewellery and is a convert to Islam. He taught Aminata the religion and how to read and write. Her mother is a midwife, which means she has to travel to nearby villages to help other women give birth. People were being kidnapped from the area and her father doesn't want her mother to travel any more. She refuses to stop doing her job, so he insists on going with her the next time. Sadly, he isn't able to stop the attack and he and his wife are killed, while Aminata is kidnapped by slavers. While she is being walked to the port, she meets Chekura, a fellow slave. At first she hates him, because he is working with the slavers. However, he explains he was sold into slavery by his uncle and is owned by the slavers.

While she, and many other slaves, are being loaded onto ships, Aminata is able to save the lives of a couple of her fellow slaves. Because she traveled with her mother to other villages, she can speak multiple languages and can talk to many of the slaves. Also, because she saw her mother work as a midwife, she offers to help a pregnant slave deliver her child, otherwise the lady would have been thrown over the ship to drown. Just before the ship leaves for America, Chekura is brought onto the ship as well.

While aboard the slave ship, the captain teaches Aminata some English, giving her an English name in the process, Mary. Because she is young and already knows multiple languages, she quickly learns. She also helps the slaves revolt by stealing small tools and weapons to help the slaves free themselves and fight back, but sadly the revolt is put down quickly. Aminata and Chekura bond during the trip, but when they arrive in the new world, they are sold to two different slave owners. Aminata is sold to Robertson Appleby. At his plantation Aminata meets another slave, Georgia, who takes care of the other slaves. Aminata needs the help, as the journey has taken a toll on her.

We then flash forward to Aminata as an adult. She has been working on Robertson Appleby's plantation all of these years and he's grown to be obsessed with her. However, Aminata hasn't given up on finding Chekura.

This gets us to the beginning of the second part of this six-part mini-series. It also gets up to where spoilers begin to become an issue, so we will stop the plot summary there.

The press material that came with this screener included a quote calling The Book of Negroes the Roots for the 21st century. That's overstating things a little bit. Roots was nominated for 37 Emmys winning 9 of them. The Book of Negroes isn't that good, but it is still really, really strong. I would call it a must see. The acting by Aunjanue Ellis is the heart of the mini-series. Without her central performance, this mini-series would have never reached the heights it does. That's not to say there aren't other elements of the mini-series that are excellent. Both Louis Gossett Jr and Cuba Gooding, Jr. are excellent in supporting roles. Finally, this is just a really powerful story and one that is worth experiencing.

The Extras

There are two featurettes on the first disc, including a minute-long look at the Amistad and a nine-minute look at the Black Loyalist Society. Disc one has 31 minutes of deleted scenes. Disc three is nothing but extras. This starts with interviews with the cast and crew... two and a half hours of interviews. There are two featurettes with Lawrence Hill, one on the set, and he talks about his book, real life slavery in Canada, and more. Combined, these two featurettes are more than 30 minutes long. Overall, the extras are nearly as long as the mini-series itself. Additionally, the package comes with an original short story by Lawrence Hill.

The Verdict

The Book of Negroes is not as good as Roots was, but it is better than Amistad was, for example. Those interested in this part of history should certainly check it out. Meanwhile, the three-disc DVD is loaded with extras and it is easily worth buying.

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Filed under: Video Review, The Book of Negroes, Lyriq Bent, Greg Bryk, Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Louis Gossett Jr., Sandra Caldwell, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon, Siya Xaba, Lawrence Hill