Book of Negroes debuts

The Book Of Negroes

What’s in a name? Quite a bit, actually. It links us to our past, reveals our family ties, and, in some cultures, can even reveal what part of the country you’re from. A name is a powerful thing, and that’s something Book of Negroes author Lawrence Hill is well aware of. His novel was given a new title (with a far more direct interpretation) when published in some countries to something less controversial, Someone Knows My Name—but CBC, and BET with it, stuck with Hill’s original title when turning the gripping novel into a miniseries.

Instead the series threads Hill’s understanding of the value of names and the role they play in his story throughout, opening with lead Aunjanue Ellis declaring to a room of British lawmakers, “I am Aminata Diallo,” before reciting her family’s history and taking us to the very beginning of Hill’s massive undertaking. The source of the story comes from a ledger of names of “Black Loyalists” who were taken to Nova Scotia by the British to free them after requiring that they serve them through the American Revolution. If the series is to be anything like the book, it should build towards Aminata’s responsibility of transcribing the names of each person taking the passage north, fulfilling the emotional promise of the alternative title.

Aminata’s role as a receptacle of names and histories for her fellow slaves is teased within the very first episode—she not only dreams of becoming a djello, a storyteller, but is quickly thrust into carrying the names of all those aboard the slave ship with her as they are taken from their homes. As she is renamed twice in the episode—first aboard the ship and again at the plantation—her claim to her name at the beginning is only emphasized more. It’s a resistance to being enslaved, Anglicized and ripped from her home and family. At the same time it’s a powerful statement of Aminata’s strength of character—the kind that had Ellis describing her as a modern woman during a screening of the series at the Canadian International Television Festival.

It’s that strength Ellis has to step into beginning with the second episode, since it was Shailyn Pierre-Dixon who was tasked with the difficult job of starting Aminata’s harrowing journey home, from the devastating loss of her parents to the grueling walk to the coast and finally the deadly voyage west. Pierre-Dixon may have only had the one episode to make her mark as the young Aminata, but she provides the roots of the strength Ellis will have to flesh out as the series goes on. And seeing the village of Bayo through the simpler mind of a child only drives home how terrifying and horrifying the slave trade was as villagers inexplicably went missing, only to never be seen or heard from again.

It’s Pierre-Dixon who delivers the emotional weight of those revelations, and it’s her pain and fear that we experience so that when Ellis boldly rises up to face down her owner at the very end we understand how this brutality has shaped her. It’s a stunning introduction for Ellis that simply would not have been possible without her younger counter-part, which may be why this episode, with Pierre-Dixon as our fragile and determined lead, is one of the strongest from what I’ve seen so far.

From that ominous end even those who haven’t read Hill’s novel (and you really should if you haven’t) can see where Aminata’s story goes next. We’re a long way from the ledger and from Aminata’s bold reclamation of her name as she makes her case against slavery—but if her journey home is anywhere near as compelling as the forced one that took her away, CBC can be sure we will all know her name.

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

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