BET TV Six-part miniseries
Running time: 265 min. Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 4. Our Star ratings (1-5): 4.5
(Still time as of this writing to see 4 episodes on Tues. & Wed.,
Feb. 17 & 18, 2015)
This 6-part miniseries produced for BET comes just in time for the celebration of Black History Month. It tells a little known story of history, taking its name from a document created by the British in 1783 right after the Revolutionary War. At the outbreak of hostilities the British had promised freedom to any slave in America who would serve with the British army against their white oppressors. I certainly never learned of this in high school or college! The 150-page document listed 3000 black Loyalists, most of whom emigrated to Canada, and some to England.
Their story is told through the woman Aminata Diallo (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon as a girl and Aunjanue Ellis as a woman) who in 1761 lives happily with her parents in Mali. A girl trained by her mother to be a midwife she is captured from while on a journey with her father and mother. They are killed, and she is marched in chains to the sea. Along the way Chekura Tiano (Lyiq Bent), a boy in the slaving party, befriends her. She is surprised aboard the filthy ship to see that he too has been sold.
The chaos of the first moments on the ship are powerfully shown, people crying and moaning, the ship’s captain trying to examine the recalcitrant captives, various manacled slaves being beaten. When one man struggles too hard, refusing to open his mouth so his teeth can be examined, the captain coldly orders him tossed overboard. Aminata resists at first, but she and others cooperate when they see the fate of those who will not. A pregnant woman is about to be tossed overboard, but when a crewmember speaking Aminata’s language informs the captain of her midwife experience, the woman is spared, the girl assigned to tend to her. The below-decks filth of the ship, the cramped quarters, even an abortive rebellion to seize control of the ship—all are told in graphic detail.
In South Carolina Aminata and Chekura are parted, the girl sold to the cruel Robertson Appleby (Greg Bryk). After years of service the pair will eventually come together. In the meantime Aminata will be supported by various strong-willed slaves such as Georgia (Sandra Caldwell), who secretly teaches her to read and speak proper English, as well as (for a few years) staving off Appleby from ravaging her.
Chekura seeks her out, managing to slip away from his owners at night. They “jump the broom,” and she births a daughter—who meets a sad fate. When Appleby learns of Chekura’s nocturnal visits, Appleby publicly humiliates her in one scene by shaving her head. Aminata fares better when Solomon Lindo (Allan Hawco), a Jew, purchases her so she can assist his pregnant wife Rosa (Amy Louise). The latter had detected during a visit to the Appleby plantation that the slave was better educated than she let on, thus forging a bond between them. However, even though Jews are also outsiders, Aminata learns that being a slave to another outsider still is being under bondage.
From what I read of subsequent events the plot contains some improbables as Aminata makes her way north during the actual American Revolution. Even George Washington makes an appearance. All this is held together well by Aunjanue Ellis, an excellent young actress tying together an enormous number of themes and episodes. Roots gave us largely a view of Black History from a man’s point of view, so this new series provides a real service showing us a woman’s standpoint. Hopefully this series will soon be available via streaming TV or on DVD. In the meantime, BET’s website for the show offers an incredible array of educational materials on Black History, the making of the series, photos and videos, and even a portion of the novel that the series is based on. For those wanting to learn about an unfamiliar portion of our history I cannot recommend this too highly. Some of the hollowness of our Founding Father’s rhetoric about freedom and “the rights of man” are revealed in great detail. Had there been a Daily Show back hen, Jon Stewart would have had a field day!