Film director Clement Virgo admits that it took a while for him to warm up to Lawrence Hill’s award-winning 2007 novel, The Book of Negroes. “People kept saying to me, ‘You’ve got to read this book. It’s a great book,’” Virgo recalls. “But I just didn’t like the title of the book. I didn’t know what it meant. I had a personal aversion to that title.”
Virgo eventually bought Hill’s book (first published in Canada, it was retitled in the U.S. as Someone Knows My Name) but was still reluctant to read it. “I put it on my coffee table for two months,” he says. “And then, finally, one day, I picked it up and started to read it. And I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the story. I thought I knew about this world. I thought I knew about slavery. I thought I knew about this history.”
The Book of Negroes takes its name from an actual historical document, a British military ledger that recorded the evacuation of 3,000 black Loyalists after the American Revolution. Granted a freed life in Canada, they were transported by ship to Nova Scotia to become the first African-Canadian settlers.
Hill’s novel spins a tale of hardship and resilience around a character named Aminata Diallo, who is forced into slavery as a child after being abducted from her African village. Her journey takes her to South Carolina and, later, to New York, where she ends up escaping to a black settlement in Lower Manhattan. It is there that Aminata helps register black Loyalists into the Book of Negroes.
Aminata’s story doesn’t end there. After enduring more hardship in Nova Scotia, she eventually makes her way back to Africa, part of a historic migration of black Nova Scotians to Sierra Leone.
Once Virgo read Hill’s novel, he instantly wanted to bring the story to the screen. After trying to mount it as a feature film, Virgo, Hill and producer Damon D’Oliveira transformed the project into a six-part TV miniseries, using the novel’s original title.
“I can’t imagine the series being called anything else but The Book of Negroes,” Virgo confesses. “Because, for me, the word ‘Negro’ now means strength and power and dignity, and someone who stands up for what they believe.”
Shailyn Pierre-Dixon plays Aminata as a child, while Aunjanue Ellis portrays the character as an adult. “Aminata Diallo was a warrior,” proclaims Ellis, perhaps best known for her work in The Help. “There is a joy in having the opportunity to play somebody like this woman, to inhabit and live the words that were so wonderfully written by Lawrence Hill.”
A strong cast helps bring Aminata’s journey to life. Among the names: Louis Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr., Lyriq Bent, Allan Hawco, Ben Chaplin, Greg Bryk and Jane Alexander. The miniseries is the culmination of a five-and-a-half-year effort by Virgo, Hill and D’Oliveira.
The Book of Negroes airs Feb. 16-18 on BET