As a handsome period miniseries, "The Book of Negroes," which premieres Monday on BET and continues through Wednesday, is a first for a network whose original offerings have often seemed something less than ambitious. That the miniseries is Canadian-made, based on a novel by African Canadian author Lawrence Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jamaican-born Canadian director Clement Virgo, is noteworthy but does not diminish the moment. What would PBS be without the BBC?
The series' provenance does mean that, as a story of slavery and escape from slavery, it differs in substance and theme from American tellings. The road here, which begins in Mali in 1761 and ends in London in 1807, runs through snowy Nova Scotia (by way of South Carolina, New York and Sierra Leone); in its recounting of the American Revolution, from the black (and Commonwealth) perspective, the British are better than villains and the colonists not quite heroes.
"The Book of Negroes," which refers to a historical ledger of colonial African Americans granted freedom by the British for their help in the war, is itself a paean to names, words, storytelling and literacy, as containers of the past, organizers of the present and keys to the future. Its heroine is Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis, "The Help"), the bright, independent child of bright, independent parents; she has been trained as a midwife but dreams of being a jeli, or griot, an oral historian of her people.
The first hour, which follows Aminata from Mali to South Carolina, is the series' most original and compelling. It's powered by a deep, serious and at surprising times sweet performance by Shailyn Pierre-Dixon, now 11, who plays the young Aminata. The scenes in which she is captured and hustled on her way, through one strange experience after another, toward American slavery, have a sharp-focus dreaminess to them, a kind of horrible beauty. With little exposition, seen as they are from the point of view of one lacking words or context, they feel less played than lived through.
As the series progresses and history moves more swiftly by, its points are made more explicitly; the ironies float on the surface. (Colonial white Americans describe themselves as "slaves" to the British.) For some characters, the story arcs, whether of sin and redemption or of just desserts finally served, are fairly mathematical — sometimes at the expense of an emotional payoff. The story stays novel enough, nevertheless, and the understated tone of the production and performances keep the drama grounded. Hill and Virgo catch the ordinariness even in the awfulness — the creepy dailiness of the business of slavery, and the capability of those who profit from it to regard themselves just and even tender people. In the same way, to the opposite effects, they allow their protagonists daily lives and love; they are not victims all the time.
At the same time, "The Book of Negroes" is an adventure story, a straight-up classic romance. Lyriq Bent plays Chekura, Aminata's longtime love interest.
The heroine's fearless and clever character, the self-knowledge and self-possession her tormentors lack, and her gift for survival are fixed from first to last. She is sometimes thwarted but never altered. If this makes "The Book of Negroes" less psychologically complex than it otherwise might be, there are real pleasures and comforts to be had from it.
"The most capable woman I've ever seen," New York innkeeper Sam Fraunces (Cuba Gooding Jr.), of Fraunces Tavern fame, calls her. (There is an old tradition, without much scholarly support, that Fraunces, who was nicknamed Black Sam, was of African descent; in any case, Hill goes with it.) Aminata holds on to her name; she trades slap for slap; no one can tell her what to do. She asks George Washington (a bit of an officious boob in this rendering), "Do you think the Negro will one day have his freedom like you Americans?"
"I'm afraid the general must be on his way," his flack responds.