To mark Emancipation Day in Canada, Aug. 1, CBC is adding a number of programs, not all of them new.
The most important is the miniseries adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel The Book of Negroes (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m. with two episodes, continuing through Tuesday), first broadcast in January of 2015. It can be seen in a new light now. Back when it was in production, Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay, called it “very profoundly a Canadian story, but a very unknown Canadian story.” He’s right.
The Book of Negroes tells the epic story of Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis), a young West African girl taken as a child from her village and sold into slavery in the United States. Things open with a good lure into the epic. As an elderly woman, Aminata is introduced in London, in 1802. Abolitionists are petitioning to outlaw the slave trade and Aminata is their evidence. She tells her tale, starting decades earlier.
The dramatization of Aminata’s traumatic abduction and journey (she is played as a child by the wonderful Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) is deeply 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.
Then the futility of the uprising by the slaves – the hopelessness of challenging the white slave-traders is made emphatic. All this is rendered with great skill by director Clement Virgo 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 Bryk) that the drama acquires a slower, more stately pace. Aminata is an adult now and her life becomes a series of emotional encounters and situations that connect her to the powerful undertow of history.
The essential point, that Aminata has strength of character, doesn’t dissipate but there is, later, a rushed quality to the storytelling. (A quality noted in U.S. reviews when it aired on BET there.) Things clip along to hit the major plot points in Hill’s novel, but there is a grave stillness in Aminata’s relationship with her husband and sometimes-companion, fellow slave Chekura Tyano (Lyriq Bent, who is deftly forceful in key scenes). One part of Aminata’s journey, her time in the home of the Jewish indigo trader Lindo (Allan Hawco) and his wife Rosa (Amy Louise Wilson), does lack dramatic focus.
But the well-told climax puts Aminata in the midst of an under-known quirk of history. It’s the time of the American Revolution and the British offer the hope of freedom to slaves. Thus, Aminata is one of those who flees to Nova Scotia and she helps register 3,000 “Black Loyalists” in the document called The Book of Negroes, a British military ledger to register their transit from New York to Nova Scotia.
The two marquee stars, Louis Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding Jr., eventually begin to dominate. Gossett is great as the Daddy Moses character. Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a standout performance as real-life historical figure Samuel Fraunces, a tavern owner who helps Aminata on her quest to live freely and return home. It’s good that CBC airs the miniseries over three nights. In 2015 it aired weekly. This is an important series to consume fully and quickly, and then let it resonate.
Also airing this weekend
Auntie Jillian (Saturday, CTV, 8 p.m.) is about the Danford family who are, apparently, the first Black family to have a reality show in Canada. Jillian Danford started the YouTube channel Auntie Jillian a few years ago and it became a hit, with millions of views. Danford is from Trinidad, while her husband Warren is from Jamaica, and their two children, son Myles and daughter Milan, are a big part of the show. Like many YouTube series it’s a bit daft, a bit hit-and-miss, but this one is entirely affable and gently hilarious. The Danford family lives in Ajax, Ont., and does family stuff, often with the intent of “being Canadian.” That’s the gist. It’s delightful to see it on TV and not confined to YouTube.
Room 104 (Friday, HBO 11 p.m., then HBO on-demand) returns for its final season. The anthology of half-hour dramas has produced some small works of genius, and the opening episode is startlingly unsettling. In The Murderer, four young guys and one young woman (Hari Nef, who is excellent) gather in the motel room for a private performance by reclusive musician Graham Husker (Mark Duplass, who created the series with his brother Jay). The musician has a tiny cult following for writing songs about murdering his mother. But, are they songs or a confession?
Also note that if you want to catch up with Perry Mason (Sunday, HBO 9 p.m.) there is a marathon of the first four episodes Saturday, starting on HBO Canada, 9 p.m.
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