When Clement Virgo first heard about Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book Of Negroes, it was really hard for the Canadian director to swallow the title. Ditto for his producing partner Damon D’Oliveira.
“I had an aversion to a novel called Book Of Negroes,” said the director of the six-part BET-eOne miniseries which is making its premiere tonight at Mipcom in the Cannes grand auditorium and will debut on BET in February; the network’s first-ever long format series. Virgo was pushed by his local bookseller to read Hill’s novel about Aminata Diallo, the indomitable African women who is kidnapped by slave traders in West Africa, sold into slavery in South Carolina, then navigates her way through the American Revolution when she ultimately secures her freedom to England at the dawn of the 19th century. But even after buying the book, Virgo was put off by the title. He soon came around and says, “I couldn’t imagine the novel being called anything else.”
“The use of the word in the novel and miniseries isn’t to provoke or disturb,” explained Hill who was part of a morning panel for the miniseries with castmembers Aunjanue Ellis (Aminata), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Samuel Fraunces), Louis Gossett Jr. (Daddy Moses), executive producer Carrie Stein, D’Oliveira and Clement. The Book Of Negroes refers to a book of genealogy kept by the British Navy of those slaves who left their captors to serve the red coats during the Revolutionary War. But when the British lost, they sought to make good on their promise and the book logged each slave’s country of origin, destination and what their job was during the war.
“I told Damon that I see this project as The Wizard Of Oz,” said Virgo. “Just as Dorothy was pulled out of Kansas, Aminata is in Africa and then this twister of slavery pushes her out of her home, across the ocean and all she wants to do is get back home,” added the director.
At first Virgo and D’Oliveira tried to make The Book Of Negroes into a feature film in 2010, however, international feature distributors didn’t see the project as being prime for theatrical audiences. The duo received a bigger response from Canadian broadcasters who saw it as a miniseries and in time. During her first week as the EVP of Global Production at Entertainment One TV, The Book Of Negroes came across Stein’s desk. Though she thought it was a hard project to bring to the U.S. market initially, what moved the project forward was BET. The channel had just aired Roots for the first time, scoring four million viewers, impressive for a 37-year old miniseries. With D’Oliveira’s encouragement, Stein sent the project over to BET, who she says “was over the moon and they came in with a significant amount of financing.”
D’Oliveira credits the critical and commercial success of Oscar-winning best picture 12 Years A Slave for further advancing The Book Of Negroes and opening the door for “incredible stories out of the institution of slavery.” The Book Of Negroes differs from 12 Years A Slave in that most of the narrative doesn’t take place on the plantation.
Gooding Jr. further expounded how The Book Of Negroes sets itself apart from 12 Years A Slave explaining, “It’s told from the female perspective with a sense of empowerment. Through Aminata’s journey we see the strength of her character. I didn’t know anything about The Book Of Negroes, or the slaves participation with the British and upon hearing this, it always upsets me when I hear about something I don’t know: Like The Tuskegee Airmen, The Book Of Negroes is another upsetting moment for African Americans, when we have made a positive impact on the building of America, but our history hasn’t been told. Hearing this tale of strength moved me.”
The Book Of Negroes will also air on CBC in Canada. Conquering Pictures and Out of Africa Entertainment are also producers.