Book of Negroes comes north

The Book Of Negroes


“Welcome to Paradise.”

If ever there were a salutation to guarantee what’s coming will not be pleasant, it has to be this one delivered to Aminata in Wednesday’s Book of Negroes. Because the idyll of freedom and hope that everyone assumed Canada to be (and many still do) proved to be a leg in her journey more shocking than anything the miniseries has exposed us to so far.

Because of that—and likely also because the series did a great job breaking through Canada’s selective memory—the penultimate installment of the series resonated at a level I haven’t experienced since the premiere. Maybe it was because Aminata had finally come to my home, full of faces I recognize (Joel Thomas Hines from Republic of Doyle and Matt Ward of Remedy) that the series tapped into something deeper for me. Or maybe it was because it finally made visible a part of this history that simply doesn’t get as much coverage as the plantations down south, the Revolution or the Civil War, bringing something fresh and fascinating to our screens while being bold enough to lay the horrifying truth bare.

While Aminata hasn’t had an easy go of it since her first step in the cockle, she hadn’t until now been faced of such immediate, volatile hostility. The series, perhaps recognizing they could be one of the first to show this side of the nation on screen, took time to delve into the politics of Shelburne—from the way the English misled the fleeing slaves to the scarcity of farmland and other opportunities to, finally, a wage inequity that managed to breed its own self-induced slavery while pitting a desperate, starving city against its two halves.

That it ended in violence and escape feels inevitable, but tragic—and a stark reminder that Canada’s reputation as a haven for refugees is still young and fragile. Perhaps more to the series’ strength was the feeling of failure induced when Aminata was the first to volunteer to leave, a sign not only of how beloved she’s become in such a short time, but of the sense of responsibility the series carries and passes on.

Lawrence Hill penned his chapters in Canada a bit more delicately, but the TV adaptation has proved it has no interest in treading lightly here—Mrs. Witherspoon lacks her veneer of goodness in this series, malignant but necessary from the start—demanding a justice that is technically her due but leaves nothing for the men who’ve been strung up after being starved into crime.

But with the shackles finally off Aminata, this episode also saw her at her best even as she yet again went through her worst. The loss of another child was, of course, devastating, but her reunion with Chekura (a pleasant surprise for fans of the novel and Lyriq Bent) was filled with genuine happiness—and some truly Canadian declarations of love. That the series made more than a number of changes with this part of the story didn’t bother me as much as I expected when they gave Aminata more of the happiness we’ve seen repeatedly stripped away while also turning her into a far more direct heroine—the kind she’s felt like all along. As I’ve said before, the quiet moments between Aminata and her newfound friends, like this week’s tragi-comic combination with Lou Gosset Jr., are also some of its best for letting us really connect with the people at the heart of the story and this week was full of them.

After an episode like this, it’s almost with dread that I approach next week and the ending of the series—but with Aminata finally set to return home and take us back to the beginning, where she’ll recite her own name once again and those of everyone she’s met along the way, I’m full of anticipation too.

Book of Negroes airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC.