Clement Virgo's The Book of Negroes
When Canadian author Lawrence Hill’s historical novel The Book of Negroes was released in 2007, it had the kind of integrated critical and commercial success that most writers can only dream of having. It was a national best-seller, shortlisted for the Giller Prize and won the prestigious Commonwealth Writer’ Prize, an honour previously accorded to the likes of Rohinton Mistry, J.M. Coetzee and Mordecai Richler. The praise from all corners was overwhelming, but at least one potential reader wasn’t convinced.
“I just didn’t want to read it,” recalls DGC member Clement Virgo. “The title was very strange to me; I couldn’t imagine what a ‘book of Negroes’ was. I wondered what the story could possibly be. I had an aversion to the title. I’d pick the book up while I was in stores and then put it back down. And then I was at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, a bookstore in Toronto’s Kensington Market, which is where I live. Molly Johnson, a local jazz singer, was there and she forced me. She took my wallet and forced me to buy the book right there. And even then, I left it on my coffee table. I didn’t want to read it. And then I did.”
At this point, it’s probably safe to say that Virgo has read The Book of Negroes as closely as anybody except its author. Working with help and input from Hill, the 48-year-old filmmaker has prepared a six-hour miniseries adaptation of The Book of Negroes, slated for broadcast in early 2015 on the CBC. (It will air in the United States on BET.) “I spent almost two years trying to make it into a feature film,” says Virgo, who agreed to an interview with Montage this summer while deep in the editing process at Technicolor in Toronto’s East End. “I couldn’t finance a film version. The budget would have been too high for the movie I was seeing in my head. There’s a renaissance in television right now, so it felt natural to approach the CBC. It supported us and suggested a miniseries and we agreed.”
The director is right to cite the recent artistic renaissance of television productions, from True Detective to Masters of Sex to Orphan Black. Virgo has worked on several key television series–including, most impressively, The Wire (he directed two episodes in 2002). Based on the limited amount of footage that was made available at press time, The Book of Negroes joins the ranks of small-screen presentations directed with a cinematic eye. The footage from Episode 1, which describes the abduction of 11-year-old Aminata from her home in West Africa by white slavers in the middle of the 18th century, has a combination of epic physical scale (the miniseries was shot partially on location in South Africa) and intimate, detailed character work. The visual language is eloquent and concise. It’s also patient in a way that most feature films literally can’t afford to be. The old saying that “time is money” is never truer than when on a film set. “When you’re making [a feature] it can’t be much more than two and a half hours,” says Virgo, “unless you’re making Transformers. In television, you can open up the story and give yourself the time to tell it right.”
That same sense of patience informed the entire production. The Book of Negroes came together slowly and deliberately over a period of several years. “Because it’s such a big project, we had to look at it as a co-production,” says Virgo. “I wanted to shoot in Africa, and one of the only countries that could support what we wanted to do there was South Africa. Our partner there was Out of Africa Productions. The producer, Lance Samuels, did Bang Bang Club [a drama about war photographers] a few years ago. We wanted a company that could sell it internationally, so EOne came on board. We wanted exposure in the United States and showed it to BET and it was a match for them. And since the story is set partially in Nova Scotia, we ended up working with the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation as well.”
The international flavour of the film’s financing mirrors the contents of its story, which takes place on three continents. After being plucked from Mali and taken across the ocean in a slave ship—a genuinely nightmarish passage that at times feels like the literary equivalent to one of Hieronymous Bosch’s hellish canvases—Aminata works on an indigo plantation in South Carolina and in a well-to-do household in New York before resettling in Nova Scotia during the American Revolutionary War. Recruited by the British abolitionist movement, she accompanies a group back to Africa to begin a “free” community and then attempts to return to her ancestral home nearly seven decades after being forcibly removed in the first place. The story is told entirely in Aminata’s voice, which evolves from wavering naiveté to the rich, assured tones of someone who’s seen it all. It’s one of the rich ironies of Hill’s narrative that the little girl who wanted to become a storyteller is obliged to do just that at the end of her ordeal. Aminata’s stated fondness for the work of Jonathan Swift tips us off to her creator’s overarching literary strategy, which is to use a subjective point of view to tell a more panoramic story. Like Amanata’s beloved Gulliver’s Travels, itself the tale of a weary and worldly traveller, The Book of Negroes is picaresque, except instead of disguising sociology as a fairy tale, it renders history in a style that’s as fantastic, grotesque and disturbing as a work of science fiction.
It’s the utterly visceral aspect of Hill’s writing that Virgo says sets it apart from other books on the subject of slavery, but it’s also what gave him pause while he was working on his adaptation. “I wasn’t interested in making a horror show,” he says flatly. “To me, it was always about the emotion. I didn’t want to focus on blood and gore and violence. That’s not as interesting as the interior journey of the main character. I wanted us to be there with her, going through it as a very subjective experience. It wasn’t about presenting horror but about developing some kind of an emotional investment.” While Virgo hasn’t seen Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), he says he’s leery of any film that attempts to exploit such a scenario for shock value.
These sentiments are echoed by Hill, who knew his work would be altered somewhat in the transition from page to screen. “It’s a hard-edged story, but we didn’t want to assault the viewer,” explains the author over the phone from Saskatchewan. “This was the first time I’ve been involved in a television production, and I was very much a neophyte in that area. I was learning on the fly. One of the things I found was that a little bit of violence and horror goes a long way on the screen. You can’t throw things at a viewer like you can at the reader of a book.”
At the same time, Hill says he didn’t want a “sugar-coated” treatment of what is inherently “hard-edged” material. One of the reasons he agreed to let Virgo do the adaptation after the director contacted him was because of the confrontational aspect of his previous movies. “I’d already seen Rude but I had him send me Lie With Me and Poor Boy’s Game, and I watched them with interest. In Lie With Me, I saw a lot of courage. It was provocative. It wasn’t timid. I knew from it that he couldn’t back away from a strong story and he wasn’t afraid of any subject matter. And in Poor Boy’s Game, I saw something unusual: a depiction of the Black community in Nova Scotia.”
The connection between Virgo’s acclaimed 2007 boxing melodrama and The Book of Negroes is entirely coincidental, but both Hill and Virgo see the Canadian location as crucial to the meaning of the work. “The story of Africans in Canada hasn’t attracted a lot of popular attention in Canada,” says Hill, who did extensive research with primary historical materials before beginning the book. “There have been Black people in Nova Scotia for nearly 400 years, and the migration there created boomtowns and radical novelty in their demographics.” Virgo, who was born in Jamaica and says his family originally came across the Atlantic Ocean during the middle passage generations ago, adds that for many people, both then and now, Nova Scotia has functioned as a sort of threshold to life in Canada. “You have to go through there to get to the rest of the country,” he says.
The Book of Negroes is Virgo’s first attempt at a period piece after a series of very contemporary dramas, and he says he was humbled by the burden of representing history. “We think we know everything about slavery,” he says. “I thought I did, anyway. I know a lot of cursory things about Africa and the middle passage but the detail in Lawrence’s book is so impressive that it made me realize how little I actually did know. And so I really wanted to get all of those details into the series. The sense of smell. The sense of history.”
The director knows the inescapable pop-culture reference points for his series are going to be Roots and 12 Years a Slave, but his true storytelling model was actually a film about a very different time and place: Roman Polanski’s 2002 Oscar-winner The Pianist, about the fall of Warsaw during World War II. “If one can have a favourite Holocaust movie, that would be it for me,” he says. “I love it because it’s so subjective. You’re with this one guy the entire time. You’re stuck in the apartment with him. You feel like you’re surviving right alongside him, amidst all this chaos and madness.”
The Pianist is of course famous for earning Adrien Brody an Academy Award for his tour-de-force performance in the title role. Polanski’s film is basically a one-man show, whereas The Book of Negroes’ dramaturgy is more complex. Aminata is the clear protagonist and her experiences define the narrative, but there’s also a wide array of secondary characters who figure into her story. With this in mind, Virgo’s series is very much an ensemble production, with key roles for a pair of African-American Oscar winners—Louis Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding Jr.—as well as a Canadian star in Republic of Doyle’s Allan Hawco, who plays the extremely difficult role of Solomon Lindo, a Jewish-American slave owner whose compassion for Aminata very nearly obscures his complicity in a system he outwardly rails against. (Greg Bryk and Jane Alexander also star.) But of course the most important casting decision was Aminata, who has been called one of the greatest heroines in Canadian fiction, a steadfast yet hardly stolid survivor whose humanity and humour waver but never fail over the course of her ordeal.
“The challenge is that the character ages from eight to 80 during the story,” says Virgo. “So I actually used Steven Spielberg as a model. In The Color Purple, you have two actresses playing Celie Johnson: there’s a child actress and then Whoopi Goldberg takes her the rest of the way. I wanted to do the same thing.” In Episode 1, Aminata is played by Shai Pierre Dixon; from there, she’s embodied by Aunjaune Ellis, a veteran performer who has appeared in many major American films and television series from Ray to True Blood but has never had a star showcase quite like this one.
“I looked at a lot of women,” says Virgo. “I needed someone who had youthful energy but who could also play older. And it had to be somebody who you could watch for six hours and who I could spend six months with. We looked in England, Canada and the United States. We looked at a lot of stars, too. Aunjaune came through, and I’m very excited to see how audiences are going to respond to her.”
Given its source material’s popularity and pedigree, The Book of Negroes is likely to attract a wide audience when it airs on CBC and BET, and at a time when television is frequently written about more passionately and enthusiastically than even art-house cinema, it will surely receive critical attention as well. The possibility of a Canadian crossover hit is always exciting, and yet Virgo has no illusions about the potential pitfalls of putting so many resources into the adaptation of a story whose affirmative aspects are couched in a clear-eyed and rightly horrified perspective.
“There are people who are going to have the same aversion to the series that I had to the book, just based on the title,” he says. “It’s something that you think about: Do I want to read a book about slavery? Or: Do I want to watch a story about slavery for six hours? Do I want to watch a movie about the Holocaust or about the Rwandan genocide? As a filmmaker, I’m trying to figure out how to best represent a collective humanity—to get people to recognize those feelings and those emotions.” It’s a considerable risk, but if it pays off, The Book of Negroes will have a special place in the pantheon of Canadian television productions–possibly right alongside Hill’s remarkable book in the contemporary popular canon.
Adam Nayman teaches film at the U of T and Ryerson universities. His first book, It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, is out now from ECW Press.