History from Below

EPISODE TWO PODCAST

Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today. 

I’m Lia Paradis.

And I’m Brian Crim. 

In the first episode of our second season on revolutions and rebellions, we began by looking at 2 miniseries about the American Revolution – HBO’s John Adams, and the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty. Today, we’re going to stay in the American Revolution but look at 2 tv shows that took a different approach – focusing far less on the famous array of Founding Fathers and, instead, highlighting the experiences of more average people forced to negotiate fast-moving and complex events. They are TURN: Washington’s Spies and The Book of Negroes 

The three lies agreed upon from Episode 1 are represented in both series, but we really want to emphasize how TURN and The Book of Negroes bring the stories of ordinary people to life, but in very different ways. When the Founding Fathers do make the occasional appearance on screen it works to reveal the contributions of those who are the invisible movers of events – farmers TURNed spies, for example, or slaves caught in the middle of a dispute that had no discernible impact on their plight.

What are the lies agreed upon concerning the American Revolution:

First of all, that the Revolution was simple and quick and had an obvious outcome.

Second, that the Founding Fathers were the only important actors in the Revolution

And third, that the war was waged between idealistic freedom fighters and corrupt occupiers – good guys vs. bad guys, clearly defined.

TURN demystifies the revolution. It tears families and communities apart and forces good men and women to do awful things. But, in the end wasn’t it worth it? That seems to be the message when all the dust has settled. The Book of Negroes couldn’t care less about the American Revolution as a momentous political event. It was bad news for slaves in North America. Full stop. So, yes, these series show us that the Founding Fathers were not the only important actors in the revolution, but not all of the actors were invested in the outcome.

Like we always do, let’s first recap our series.

TURN: Washington’s Spies ran for four seasons on AMC between 2014 and 2017. It’s based on the excellent book by Alexander Rose entitled Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, published in 2006. Rose was born in the US, but raised in Australia and Britain, where he completed his doctorate at Cambridge University. He also worked in Canada as a journalist. I think this transatlantic perspective explains why TURN is so effective – it doesn’t vilify the British nor valorize the colonists, or patriots, or proto-Americans, whatever you want to call them. Nothing is ever black and white in any revolution and this one was no exception.

The plot of TURN revolves around a farmer from Setauket, New York and his childhood friends as they try to survive the American Revolutionary War. The group of friends become the Culper spy ring that was so crucial to George Washington’s success throughout the war. 

The series mostly adheres to the book, although the characters’ relationships and certain biographical details are changed to heighten the dramatic effect and create enough human interest subplots to last 4 seasons. To this point, the principal cast members are young and attractive… and talented. Abraham Woodhull, our simple country farmer, is played by Jamie Bell, who first came to everyone’s notice as Billy Elliot, the tap-dancing kid from County Durham. The rest of the spy ring -who very much existed in real life – are played by Seth Numrich, Daniel Henshall, and Heather Lind and all of them are great.

The key characters in setauket but outside the spy ring are Abe’s wife, played by Meagan Warner, and his loyalist father Judge Richard Woodhull, played by the great Kevin R. McNally – one of those actors you’ve seen in a dozen things without knowing his name. Judge Woodhull  initially welcomes the arrival of the most notorious “love to hate” character – British Captain Simcoe, played by Samuel Roukin, and Major Edward Hewlitt played by Burn Gorman, who will look familiar to viewers as a regular from every Masterpiece Theatre or Brit Box series of the past 20 years.  

Farther afield – bear with us, the extensive main cast is indicative that it’s a rewardingly complicated show that took 4 seasons to tell the story of the revolution – we have JJ Feild as Major John Andre, the British head spy, and Angus McFayden regularly stealing the show as Robert Rogers, the stone cold killer Queens Ranger who is ostensibly a Loyalist but runs afoul of George III. On the other side, Ian Kahn is a severe and humorless George Washington, while Owain Yeoman plays a particularly nuanced Benedict Arnold – nuanced in the motivation and depth of his self-interest and sense of victimhood. Finally, the fabulously named Ksenia Solo plays Peggy Litton, also a real person who was definitely the Loyalist wife of Benedict Arnold, was definitely an agent of the British in her own right, and may have even recruited Arnold.

The series also complicates the idea of good guys and bad guys by having slaves and freedmen passing vital information on both sides of the conflict, especially Abigail, played by Idara Victor. And Aldis Hodge plays Jordan, a slave who finds freedom in the Queen’s Rangers, reclaiming his African identity as Akinbode.

TURN was filmed on location in Virginia, Williamsburg and Richmond primarily, mostly because the area looks and feels “colonial.” It is actually a beautiful show to watch for cinematography alone, but the hook for audiences is seeing the revolution “from below,” a band of amateurs with divided loyalties and conflicting responsibilities navigating a dangerous environment. 

The 4 seasons take us from 1776 after the British have managed to occupy New York City. And it ends when the war ends, and adds a coda that helps us to see that there isn’t a neat summation to everything. We’re told that Woodhull’s son dies in the war of 1812. The commitment to the revolution and the new nation is multi-generational in TURN. They are all invested in the outcome. 

The Book of Negroes is a 2015 miniseries that, tellingly, was co-produced by BET and the CBC – in other words, representing two populations often sidelined in narratives of the Revolution – Black people and British Loyalists. It was adapted from an award-winning novel by Lawrence Hill, a biracial Canadian author who writes fiction and nonfiction, including a 2001 memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. The Book of Negroes is fiction and the protagonist, Aminata Diallo, is a composite, but the story is firmly grounded in substantial historical research. Director Clement Virgo adapted the book for the small screen. 

The actual Book of Negroes is the historical document of recorded names and descriptions of 3,000 slaves, the so-called Black Loyalists – who had escaped to the British lines during the American Revolution, were freed, and were to be evacuated by the British by ship to Nova Scotia. 

The story begins in 1761, when eleven-year-old Aminata Diallo is abducted and taken captive from her village in West Africa by the Dutch East India Company. She meets another boy from her region, Chekura, who is working for the slavers but he too was sold into slavery. Aminata and Chekura endure the horrific middle passage and are sold into slavery in South Carolina.  

It stars the excellent Aunjanue Ellis as the adult Aminata. She’s so compelling and really carries the series. Lyric Bent plays the adult Chekura, who becomes Aminata’s husband, after they are able to reunite. Shailyn Pierre-Dixon also deserves mention as the young Aminata, as does Siyabonga Xaba as the young Chekura – I hope they both have long careers.  

Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a subtle performance as Samuel Fraunces, of Fraunces Tavern fame. In real life, his nickname was Black Sam and there has been research into whether that was because he was mixed race. It seems to be established now that he was not, but it’s a great way of challenging the accepted history and showing how the colonies were more racially complex than they are usually depicted.

It has a strong cast, including Sandra Caldwell and Cara Ricketts as Aminata’s closest friends at different stages in her life, and Louis Gossett Jr. as Daddy Moses, an elder of the Freed Black community in  Nova Scotia. Finally, Ben Chaplin plays the British officer overseeing the migration of freed blacks to Loyalist Canada, and Alan Hawco plays Solomon Lindo, a sympathetic indigo inspector, who buys Aminata from the plantation where she had been since a child. Aminanta is taught to read and write and eventually is taken by Lindo to New York, where she escapes to British lines as they control the city.

With the American Revolutionary War coming to an end and New York preparing to change hands, Aminanta is recruited by British naval officer Sir John Clarkson to help register names of Black Loyalists in The Book of Negroes. Separated from her husband again, and this is a constant plotpoint in the series, Aminata encounters more hardship in Nova Scotia. The climate is harsh and tensions flare between the white and black communities over the scarcity of work, breaking out in the Shelburne Riots in 1784. Aminata successfully petitions British abolitionists, who organize passage from Nova Scotia to the new colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone in 1792 for nearly 1,300 former slaves. With this voyage, Aminata reTURNs to the continent of her homeland, but the community of Freetown is merely an oasis in a region controlled by the slave trade.

The series ends with Aminata traveling to London in the early 1800s to work with abolitionists, including her old friend John Clarkson. She writes a memoir and lobbies Parliament, effectively giving voice to the horrors of the slave trade and helps pass the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Aminata is also reunited with her long lost daughter, giving the series a happy ending. 

The Book of Negroes does not have the production value of shows like TURN or John Adams, nor does it pretend to care about the American Revolution other than as the backdrop for Aminata’s Forrest Gumpesque expansive life story, but it is worth exploring precisely because it refuses to pay homage to the Revolution and is concerned principally with the experiences of both the enslaved and Free Blacks.  

Aunjanue Ellis won the Canadian Screen Award for best actress in a miniseries. Lyriq Bent also won the award for best actor. Aside from the acting awards, The Book of Negroes cleaned up in all the Canadian venues as well as many NAACP Image Awards. 

BREAK

So what are the lies agreed upon we’re looking at this week? Well, we want to pick up the ones we looked at last week and examine how TURN and The Book of Negroes explore them from new angles. 

We discussed how the Founding Fathers are always given central stage as the average person gets sidelined. And how the Revolution is wrongly understood today as having been a quick and simple little conflict. And that there were really obvious good guys on one side and bad guys on the other. Both these shows challenge all those assumptions. 

And partly that’s because of when they’re made and where they come from. So as always, we’ll provide some reminders of what was going on when the original books were written and by whom. And then when the TV shows were made and by whom. 

Alexander Rose wroteTURN in 2006, during the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  We can imagine that he – a trained historian – saw in the Revolutionary Era in general, and in the Culper Ring story in particular, as a way to explore the complicated motivations of people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. 

Here we have Rose describing that himself: 

Rose would have been researching and writing his book at a moment in world history where “complicated” didn’t do it justice – 2006. 

And by the time the book was being adapted into a series, six years into Obama’s presidency in 2014, the potential viewing public was a bit more … world-weary…cynical…realistic. Pick your term. In any event, a show about a protracted war, with shifting loyalties, and both honorable and monstrous people on both sides, even the best of whom find themselves doing things at the end of the war they couldn’t have imagined themselves doing when it started…well, that was something the producers, writers, directors, and the network obviously thought viewers were ready for. 

And this is why TURN, far more than John Adams, is notable for its efforts to debunk Lie #3 – that somehow every patriot was noble and courageous and every Brit was evil and cowardly. 

The Book of Negroes came to the screen one year after TURN’s first season aired. The motivation of BET would certainly have been simply the centering of Blacks in a story about early America (sort of like a certain Project it’s illegal to even teach in certain states today). But the CBC would have been motivated, at least in part, to create this production as an effort to lessen the whiteness of the traditional narrative about Canada’s early formation. This is because 2017 was the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. 

Lia can provide more Canadian translation for this show – it’s important to explain that, because Canada is next to the US and the story of race in America has always been such a horrific one, Canadians have traditionally been very self-righteous and self-satisfied about racial issues. 

But this has changed in recent years, as various immigrant populations have demanded white Canadians look more critically at their culture and history. And the crimes and neglect perpetrated against indigenous population since Europeans first arrived have gained much more public attention, in part due to a Truth and Reconciliation process modeled after the one in South Africa.

And stateside, as we have spoken about before, events and circumstances in the mid-20-teens would have encouraged BET to sign on as co-producers for The Book of Negroes. As we’ve spoken about before, the Obama administration was both an era of great visibility and representation for Blacks, and also the start of the current cultural shift about violence against Blacks made possible by cell phone video. 

This has also coincided with a new awareness of the commercial box office potential of stories where Black people are centered rather than peripheral – everything from the Oprah, Tyler Perry and (to a lesser extent) Lee Daniels empires, to grittier films by Black writers and directors like Fruitvale Station, Sorry to Bother You, and Blindspotting. In all cases, though, the key is these are productions that resist telling black stories through the white gaze (like the recent, and atrocious, Green Book.)

BREAK

Let’s remind ourselves of the Lies Agreed Upon. 1. The Revolution was inevitable, harrowing at points, but somehow fated in the stars. 2. The Founding Fathers were the principal movers of events. And 3. The revolutionaries were ideological freedom fighters and the British were cruel, corrupt occupiers.

We want to spend a few more moments breaking how The Book of Negroes in particular treats the revolution, because it is unique.

In TURN the prospects for a successful revolution that achieves broad support from the population seem distant. And the only Founding Father of consequence in the series is George Washington, and he’s kind of a mope. He makes mistakes, is vain, and treats his underlings – free and enslaved -poorly. And there are terrible people on both sides of the conflict and quite a few noble figures in the British ranks. 

The Book of Negroes is a different creature from the other productions we discuss as part of a 3 episode bloc on the American Revolution. It reminds me of Roots in a way – an expansive life story of some fictional characters living through extraordinary times. Two of the six episodes occur during the revolution and it is worth talking about how the series takes on America’s cherished myths and icons about its own revolution. 

In episode three Aminata is in 1775 New York City, which we know from TURN is a British stronghold and next to Boston, the major flashpoint for revolutionary activity. Aminata is indifferent to what she sees as the empty rhetoric behind the menacing white rebels. 

Similarly, when the Declaration of Independence is being read in Samuel Fraunces’ tavern, Aminata cynically responds, “”What rights do they want that they don’t already have?” Fraunces, played by Cuba Gooding Jr, is an unapologetic supporter and admirer of George Washington. He urges Aminata to get excited about his impending victory. She rolls her eyes, stating simply: “The same Washington who owns slaves?” 

Fortunes change for the colonies’ slave population when the British governor of Virginia issued the Dunmore Proclamation in November 1775 freeing slaves who flee their masters and serve the crown. In The Book of Negroes, Chekura joins a Loyalist regiment. Aminata is scared since she is constantly losing him anyway, but he correctly argues that if the rebels win they could be slaves for another fifty years. Of course, it’s more like 86 years. When Yorktown happens, Aminata wanders the celebratory streets of the city like a zombie, more fearful of her fate than ever.

The point is that the American Revolution is a scary proposition for the enslaved and Free Blacks alike. This is not to say British North America was any better for Aminata, but she could hardly embrace the rhetoric of freedom when it was so clear that for her, things could only get worse. In this sense Aminata and Abigail in TURN are similar. But, at least TURN implies one day this revolution will be for everyone. In The Book of Negroes, once Aminata escapes New York she never looks back. It’s just another unpleasant chapter in an already harrowing life.

The character Aminata is a compelling literary heroine, actress Aunjanue Ellis says in this roundtable about the series.  She is a modern woman for this era, a revolutionary in more ways than one.

It’s a little disorienting at first. All of the enslaved people have fully developed personalities and stories. And, of course, back stories in Guinea where we see the complexity of the societies that Europeans only worked on the edges of. 

The fluidity of society was also disorienting. The ways that enslaved people managed to work the system and come and go – with risk, but still – was another way that we see a society that didn’t focus on white society, certainly not politics and arguments between the Americans and the British. 

I thought Cuba Gooding Jr was great. Samuel Frances’ nickname was Black Sam. So recently, there’s been a lot of interest in the idea that he was a man of color. It seems the documentary evidence – at least right now – points to him being white but I like the way Hall ran with that idea. What would it mean if the host of the famed Tavern so closely tied to the Founding Fathers were black?

When the Revolution was underway, the way that Sam and Mina talked about their rationales for backing each side really illustrated the events through the lens of their priorities. 

Let’s review how The Book of Negroes complicates our Lies Agreed Upon. First, the series doesn’t care about whether the revolution was inevitable or not. It was just there. Second, the Founding Fathers are distant, irrelevant, and when they show up in person, like Washington, underwhelming and hypocritical. The third lie is most interesting because, if anything, the British are the good guys in this story. Sir John Clarkson and other officers are trying to protect Black Loyalists while the rabid rebels, and of course Washington himself, want to keep their property for the duration. This is not a representation of revolution familiar to most Americans, but that’s why it’s worth our time today. 

BREAK 

Last week we talked about filial piety and the revolution in John Adams and Sons of Liberty. TURN is a great example of using a personal relationship vital to the story as a metaphor for the larger issue of the frayed connection between colonizer and colonized. Abe Woodhull disappoints his father Judge Richard Woodull continuously, even after he does the right thing by marrying his dead brother’s fiancee. 

In the earliest episodes, we see Abe chafing against the rules of colonial life and hierarchy and obligation. But his father simply can’t imagine another world. And in a testament to how the show complicates, there are British officers who aren’t evil or domineering, They represent the reality – that the British and the colonists were supposedly one and the same. 

We can hear the complete inability to understand where the other is coming from. This really challenges what most Americans are taught – that the ideals of the revolution were…well, self-evident. And so it was easy to know what side to be on. And there was an obvious and inevitable outcome. 

Yes, the focus on spying allows the viewer to see what we historians are always focused on – the contingent nature of history. And the (actually quite funny) obsession that Washington has about New York, while everyone else -and I mean everyone – is shouting YORKTOWN!!! at him, is another strand of the plot that gets at this.

TURN is exciting, well-written and acted. You care for these people and that includes the British ones as well. It is also an excellent espionage thriller.

The Book of Negroes is well worth your while, although I bet the book is even better. The point is, for most American audiences the story of enslaved people caught up in a war that only imperilled their safety and freedom is unknown. This series is a necessary corrective to the near silence of these voices in classrooms and pop culture.

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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