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What Critics Are Saying About ‘The Book of Negroes’ Miniseries, Which Premieres Tonight on BET

What Critics Are Saying About 'The Book of Negroes' Miniseries, Which Premieres Tonight on BET

Earlier this month, I wrote and published a piece on BET’s first-ever chances at Emmy nominations this year with 2 scripted series in “Being Mary Jane” and “The Book of Negroes.”

The jury is still out on the former, but, based on reviews I’ve read thus far about the latter, Emmy recognition might be within grasp. Even if not a win, at least a nomination, whether for the miniseries as a whole, or for its star, Aunjanue Ellis, who is receiving much praise for her performance, essentially carrying the show.

It’s finally here, almost 2 years after the project’s initial announcement – BET launches its first-ever event miniseries “The Book of Negroes,” a six-part historical drama in the tradition of “Roots,” based on Lawrence Hill’s award-winning, Oprah Winfrey-listed novel (known in the United States as “Someone Knows My Name”). The highly anticipated television event will run over the course of three consecutive nights in two-hour installments, starting tonight, Monday, February 16, 2015 at 8 PM ET/PT.

Director Clement Virgo’s adaptation stars Aunjanue Ellis as Aminata Diallo, abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in Sierra Leone (West Africa), is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina, and years later, forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic “Book of Negroes” – an actual document that provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own. 

That this is a story told solely from the perspective of a woman, separates it from most slave narratives.

“It’s a universal story of a legendary woman. There’s loss, a long journey and triumph,” said Debra L. Lee, CEO of BET Networks. “It’s very exciting for us for ‘Book of Negroes’ to be our first miniseries… My vision for BET is to be a well-rounded network. There are so many stories in our culture to tell, and I’m so proud of this. I’m hoping that it’s ‘Roots’ for a younger generation.”

Will it? Time will tell that tale. But, at least, expectations from within are high. In 1977. “Roots” received 37 Emmy Award nominations and won 9. It also won a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. It received history-making ratings for the finale, which still holds a record as the third highest rated episode for any television series, and the second most watched overall series finale in USA television history.

Cuba Gooding Jr., Lou Gossett Jr., Allan Hawco, Ben Chaplin and Jane Alexander round out the “Book of Negroes” supporting cast.

S&A wasn’t able to preview the series ahead of tonight’s premiere, hence no preview review. So I’m sharing highlights of reviews written by those outlets that were afforded early press coverage.

– The Hollywood Reporter: “The bottom line: one of BET’s most notable offerings to date… Of course, it’s Ellis’ gripping performance that holds the six-part miniseries together. Except for the first installment that focuses on Aminata’s girlhood, Ellis is present in nearly every scene, aging decades and displaying a stunning range of emotion…. The miniseries, which premiered on CBC Television in Canada, marks a significant acquisition for BET, placing the channel in the growing field of cable outlets offering serious fare with high production values. Though perhaps the novel could have been condensed into a feature film, this format fits; in fact, at times, the pace even feels somewhat rushed. While The Book of Negroes addresses the painful history of slavery in the South, it expands the story to New York, Canada, Africa and beyond – telling it all, of course, from a female perspective. Of everything that can be gained from this production – ratings, critical accolades – perhaps the most meaningful will be if it prompts some to be so moved by Aminata’s struggles that they delve further into the history books themselves.”

– Variety: “It’s primarily Ellis’ show, and she conveys Aminata’s perseverance and independence despite all the tragedy that’s heaped upon her. Gossett and Alexander don’t turn up until near the end, the former as a guide to pioneers, a role spiritually similar to the one he served in “Roots.” Although history obviously mixes with fiction, there’s enough here left under-covered by traditional textbooks to make “The Book of Negroes” an intriguing window into the period. Indeed, for those steeped in a U.S.-centric version of events, it’s worth noting the British are generally the more sympathetic white characters, including Ben Chaplin as an abolitionist who quickly and respectfully recognizes Aminata’s value as a conduit to her community. Meticulously replicating the 18th century and spanning decades, the show takes a while to get going, and meanders a bit near the end. It’s also difficult to bring much new to this period with all that’s been done already. Nevertheless, the miniseries represents the sort of dramatic experience BET has too rarely provided, and likely wouldn’t have now without sharing the cost with international partners. And as Aminata’s tome makes clear, each person and generation deserves their own stories.”

– The Denver Post: “Graphic cruelty, not to mention violence, makes for difficult viewing in this lavishly produced miniseries. But it’s worthwhile, especially as director Clement Virgo has opened a new window on the experience of blacks in Canada.”

– The Washington Post: “Although the script (by Hill and series director Clement Virgo) opens with a poetic, almost liquid quality to its story and words, “The Book of Negroes” quickly suffers in the second night, when it starts racing along the timeline with clumsy dialogue that exists mainly to push along the plot…. The producers and cast (which includes Cuba Gooding Jr. and Louis Gossett Jr.) have clearly put a lot of care and thought into this project; Ellis, particularly, gives a lead performance that is strong enough to mask some of the script’s problems.”

– Canada’s Globe & Mail: “The dramatization of Aminata’s traumatic abduction and journey (she is played as a child and wonderfully by Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) is profoundly powerful. It’s must-see television. The innocence but intuitive wisdom of the child. The brutality of the long journey overland to the sea. The horror of the long sea-crossing in unspeakable conditions. The futility of the uprising by the slaves – the hopelessness of challenging the white slave-traders is emphatic. All of this is rendered with great skill by director Clement Virgo (who adapted the novel with Lawrence Hill) and there is a visual zest and dramatic force at work. It is when Aminata lands in South Carolina and into the hands of plantation owner Robinson Appleby (Greg Byrk) that the drama acquires stiffness and loses its fluidity.”

So, somewhat mixed, but leaning towards the positive. I’ll say this: I didn’t find a single review that was negative. The consensus seems to be that it’s finely-produced, lavish with high production values, meticulously recreating the world and era in which the story unfolds, with Aunjanue Ellis giving a strong performance (as you’d expect; she’s one of those black actresses who’s solid, but woefully underused); but, after what reads like a great first half, it falters towards the end, losing some of the magic captured early on – essentially, a strong start, and a weak finish. But it’s not a criticism that’s so unlike what we’ve heard before about many other projects made for the big and small screens.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the ratings are like for this. From the initial announcement that BET had boarded the project, I wondered whether it was something it’s audience would want to see. 

I definitely will be watching the entire series, starting tonight, after which I’ll share my thoughts. 

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