The miniseries adaptation of Lawrence Hill's award-winning novel The Book Of Negroes (CBC, Wednesday, 9 p.m.) starts incredibly well and then falters.
Let's start with that beginning. 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 America. Things open with a good lure into the epic story. 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 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. 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 a rushed, overly obvious quality to the storytelling. Things clip along to hit the major plot points in Hill's novel but the raw quality of the original is lost. Only in Aminata's relationship with her husband and sometimes-companion, fellow slave Chekura Tyano (Lyriq Bent, who is deftly forceful in key scenes), is there resonance. Otherwise, Aminata's journey, especially while in the home of the Jewish indigo trader Lindo (Allan Hawco) and his wife Rosa (Amy Louise Wilson), feels depthless.
The point, too obviously made, is to quickly place Aminata in the midst of one undertold 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 Book of Negroes, a British military ledger established to register their transit from New York to Nova Scotia.
It is in the episodes set in Nova Scotia (there are six episodes in the miniseries) that the adaptation unravels further. What we get is a competently done but hurried drama, as tensions between the black and white communities erupt and the hope given to Aminata evaporates. The two marquee stars, Louis Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding Jr. (their names are the selling points for the series airing on the BET channel in the United States later this year), begin to dominate and while Gossett is fine as the Daddy Moses character, Gooding is underused. And there is a doom-laden element to the story that is too explicit.
What takes the series from great to merely conventional is a variation on what Pauline Kael called "sensitive-important-picture pacing" – the overexplicit accentuation of pivotal scenes to hammer home the narrative arc. The lyricism is gone soon after the strong opening hour. Aunjanue Ellis is astonishing throughout and perhaps that is enough to carry viewers through from first to last episode. But The Book of Negroes has a vital opening chapter and then five that are, in contrast, much weaker.
Also airing Wednesday
Empire (Fox, 9 p.m.) is a big-ticket midseason drama that is presented as "a hip-hop soap opera." And it is that, although the central plot device is derived from King Lear. It stars Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, a music mogul who is told that he has a debilitating medical problem and he must decide who will control his lucrative business. There are three sons to choose between. And an ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who is just out of prison. Machinations, feuds and a lot of hip hop ensue. While it is sudsy, it's also terrifically earnest at times. It's created by Lee Daniels, director of Academy Award-winner Precious and later, The Butler. The intriguing element is this – one of the sons is gay, and the homophobia of the hip-hop world is right there, in your face.