I’ve just finished watching this six-part miniseries, and I really want you to watch it too, so without further ado, my review:
The Book of Negroes is an adaptation of a novel by Lawrence Hill, which, full confession, I haven’t yet read (although it’s now shot up to the top of my to-read pile). It tells the story of Aminata, a young girl who lives in West Africa, and who is captured and sold into slavery in the 1760s (I think?). The miniseries shows her capture; the long, arduous journey to the American colonies; and her further journey through the Revolutionary War. Significantly, she becomes involved in the real-life Book of Negroes, which documented all of the Black slaves who fought for the British and were resettled in Nova Scotia. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so let’s leave it at that.
Why You Should Watch The Book of Negroes: A List
- A really horrifying yet fascinating glimpse at the African slave trade. Anyone interested in history should at least watch the first episode for its moving and thought-provoking depiction of Aminata’s journey from West Africa through the Middle Passage.
- Strong acting, particularly from lead actress Aunjanue Ellis, who plays adult Aminata, and Shailyn Pierre-Dixon as young Aminata. Seriously. Both are incredibly talented actresses whose depth of feeling as conveyed on film, is absolutely mesmerizing.
- It sheds light on a little-known, but truly important, episode in American/Canadian/British/African history. Contrary to popular opinion, African slaves DID fight back. They DID resist. This doesn’t detract from the horrors of slavery, but it goes some small way to returning agency to them.
- It’s a historical film that puts people of color in the lead roles. Gina Rodriguez, who recently won a Golden Globe for Jane the Virgin, said it better than I can, so I’ll quote her: “This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”
- One of the key supporting characters, played by Lyriq Bent? Hot.
But Yes, Prepare Yourself For…
Costumes in Book of Negroes that are 60% shitty. Now, my theory is that the production had a very minor budget and had to make do with rentals and extras who dressed themselves. There’s no other possible reason for the total mixed bag of semi-18th century, semi-1840s costumes, all mixed up together.
The costume designer is Kate Carin, who has been working since the early 1990s. Her filmography includes Shallow Grave (with Ewan MacGregor), Spice World (you know, with the Spice Girls?), and Hideous Kinky (with Kate Winslet). She hasn’t done a lot of BIG things, but she has done some historical costume works, including The Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle (2005) and an episode of Agatha Christie’s Marple (2013).
Sadly, I can’t find ANY news articles about her in terms of this program, so I can’t tell you her thoughts on the costume design.
Now, I want to pause and make clear my argument that Book of Negroes isn’t about the costumes, it’s about the history. You heard it here — this is Kendra, who is obsessed with the 18th century. But I forgave almost every costume error because I was so fascinated by the story and the strong acting from the leads. So please, don’t read the rest of this and think, “The costumes suck, not going to watch it.” Just, trust me. Watch it.
That being said…
There were some things I DID like about The Book of Negroes costumes:
Many of the costumes made an effort to at least reference 18th-century styles:
When, at points in the story, she was doing better financially, some of her dresses were not half bad for 1770s-1780s! I’m not saying they’re great. But they don’t suck.
Oftentimes, the men were in decently 18th-century-esque costumes, with coats and waistcoats in acceptable styles and tricorns.
And in some scenes, the extras looked decently 18th-century-esque too.
Of course, there were some sore-thumb moments, especially if you know anything about 18th-century costume:
Female characters would go from 18th-century-esque to “bad Civil War rental costume”:
Other WTF things include:
So, yeah. Clearly zero budget for costumes in The Book of Negroes, and I’m thinking the mishmash on the extras has to be from them supplying their own costumes. Extras — good for you for helping out and making your own gear! Costume department — good for you for being resourceful and getting shit done!
But All This Being Said…
Watch The Book of Negroes. It’s really good. Just, gird your loins for questionable costume decisions.
I just recently purchased it. Thanks for the warning about the costumes.
The costuming and depiction of what are supposely “culturally authentic” clothing, jewelry, housing and culture in what is intended to be Mali (but is actually South Africa) made me want to cry. The whole setup = nobody could be bothered to do some research, and/or they figured Americans wouldn’t know the difference. They were probably right sbout the latter, but it’s all incredibly cringeworthy. (So are thr S. African style villages and wall paintings, the schooner that wouldn’t have been used for a South Atlantic voyage like this… and on snd on.) The fake “African” costumes and body paint and all are downright demeaning – these were sophisticated cultures and peoples, not iron age “primitives.” In doing the 1st ep. in this manner, BET was actually perpetuating demeaning stereotypes of Africans, and, frankly, of the ancestral cultures and homelands of contemporary black N. Americans. They didn’t even get the music and musical instruments right.
I know they must’ve had a shoestring budget, but even so, the production and costume design are just a total mess. They could likely have consulted – for free! – with specialists in 17th snd 18th c. costume and fashion at the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery, or at least checked some books out of the public library to see what they were dealing with. (FWIW, I worked at the NPG back when, and we got queries of this dort all.the.time.)
The anachronisms and hugely misleading depiction of 18th c. West Africa are so jarring that I had to stop watching. That’s not to detract from anyone’s performance, but it would have been relatively easy and cheap for them to do so much better. I feel for the cast, and can only hope that someone, somedsy gets it right, in a film or TV series that reaches a mass audience. Here’s hoping…
As some smart person once said, intelligence is also about being willing to look for accurate information. I hate it when production values get dumbed down because producers assume the intended audience don’t care.