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'The Book of Negroes' Adaptation Updates: Character Breakdowns, Will Be 6-Hour Mini-Series, Shooting Now

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act March 4, 2014 at 1:15PM

'The Book of Negroes' Adaptation Updates: Character Breakdowns, Will Be 6-Hour Mini-Series, Shooting Now
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Clement Virgo + The Book of Negroes
Clement Virgo + The Book of Negroes

Movement on Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo's much-anticipated film adaptation of author Lawrence Hill’s award-winning bestseller, The Book of Negroes.


We reported a month ago that Louis Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr., Aunjanue Ellis and Lyriq Bent had all been cast in the project from Conquering Lion Pictures, Out of Africa Entertainment and Entertainment One (eOne) Television. 

Ben Chaplin, Allan Hawko and Jane Alexander round out the cast.

Boasting one of the strongest female characters in recent fiction, the novel's synopsis reads:

Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle—a string of slaves— Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic “Book of Negroes.” This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own. Aminata’s eventual return to Sierra Leone—passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America—is an engrossing account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey.

At the time of our last report, there was no word on what roles each actor will play. Although I speculated that Aunjanue Ellis would likely be playing the adult Aminata, unless there was some further key casting to be announced.

It turns out that I was correct, as I've learned today that Aunjanue Ellis will indeed star as Aminata Diallo, while Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lou Gossett Jr. will play Sam Fraunces and Daddy Moses respectively.

Gooding's Fraunces is a freed slave from Jamaica who runs his namesake tavern (Fraunces Tavern), participates in historical events, and later moves to Mount Vernon to run George Washington's household

Meanwhile, Daddy Moses is Moses 'Daddy' Wilkinson or Old Moses, an African American slave, and Methodist preacher in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. Though blind and crippled, Wilkinson led a band of runaway slaves to freedom in 1776.

Also Lyriq Bent is playing Chekura, who, as a young boy, made the crossing with Aminata when she was sold into slavery, is separated from her, and are later reunited as adults, and have a child together. 

Allan Hawco is Solomon Lindo (a Jewish man Aminata is sold to), Ben Chaplin is Capt. John Clarkson (a young British naval officer recruiting black settlers to move from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone) and Jane Alexander plays a Maria Witherspoon, the matriarch of a white family that Aminata leaves her baby with, for safety, during a series of riots that break out as the city she lives in is attacked and black men and women are lynched. She later returns to the Witherspoon's home to claim her child only to learn that they've left with the baby. 

The adaptation of the novel will no longer be a feature-length film, but a TV mini-series, which, as I said at the time, was more suitable for the material. It's not a very long book at around 380 pages, paperback, but the material is weighty, and, I think would be better told in long-form, instead of cramming it all into 2 hours.

I learned today that the total length of the mini-series will be 6 hours, and will likely be broadcast in 3 two-hour episodes.

USA rights belong to BET, who got involved in the project, teaming up with CBC in Canada, to bring the mini-series adaptation to the small screen. 

With principal photography set to run through May, shooting mainly in South Africa, and Canada, I anticipate it'll debut during the 2014/2015 TV season.

“The Book of Negroes is a deeply inspirational, triumphant story that needs to be told, and we are proud to be part of a project that has the ability and pedigree to attract a cast as exceptional as Lou, Cuba, Aunjanue, Lyriq, Ben, Allan and Jane,” said Carrie Stein, the executive VP of global production at eOne Television. 

Loretha Jones, the president of original programming at BET Networks, added, “We are thrilled to join forces with the CBC, eOne and the talented cast and creative team for this special project. Aminata and her journey symbolize the indomitable spirit of so many of our ancestors who not only survived the horrible institution of slavery, but also prevailed under trying circumstances. It is that legacy that we hope will continue to inspire our young people today.”

Also, Virgo previously promised that he isn't at all interested in making "this-is-good-for-you cinema" as he put it, nor is he interested in going after what could be "your typical Masterpiece Theatre wig-and-wardrobe orgy" in the hands of the wrong director, quoting him again.

Virgo, whose own previous films are partly remembered for their "high-octane" style, says he definitely understands the "energy" in the novel he is adapting, and knows what kind of adaptation it deserves, stating, "It's a very fast-paced, modern book... it's not stodgy at all. From a visual standpoint, I want to capture the rhythm of the book, keeping it moving forward... It's definitely not a Merchant-Ivory kind of movie."

If you'd like to pick up a copy of The Book Of Negroes to read, click HERE to purchase. I bought it last year, and will write up a book-to-screen review of it soon.

The Book of Negroes is an official Canada-South Africa co-production, executive produced by Damon D'Oliveira and Clement Virgo from Conquering Lion Pictures; Lance Samuels from Out of Africa Entertainment; Bill Niven of Idlewild Films; and eOne's Carrie Stein and Margaret O'Brien. Other executive producers include Daniel Iron and Michael Levine.

This article is related to: Clement Virgo, TV News, Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding, Louis Gossett Jr., Lyriq Bent


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