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'Book of Negroes' miniseries a saga of slavery and homecoming

Background actors are seen during filming of "The Book Of Negroes" in Cole Harbour, N.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Pittman
January 05, 2015 - 8:26 AM

HALIFAX - Actress Aunjanue Ellis couldn't let go of "The Book of Negroes" after she had read the final words of Lawrence Hill's bestselling saga of slavery, segregation and redemption.

There was something about the story of kidnapped child-slave Aminata Diallo — whose harrowing journey has been adapted into a six-part miniseries starting Wednesday on CBC — that resonated deep inside Ellis ("The Help") and begged to be explored as an actor.

"The book was one of those most special experiences that I've ever had," said Ellis, who portrays Diallo in the miniseries, on set near Halifax last May.

"I just wanted to live it. I didn't want it to be over."

Clement Virgo, the African-Canadian director of "Poor Boy's Game," adapted the script from the 2007 novel with Hill. Principal photography began last year in South Africa before moving to several locations in Nova Scotia. The Canada-South Africa co-production will also air on BET in the United States.

The miniseries, also starring Academy Award winners Louis Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding Jr., follows Diallo after the 11-year-old is abducted by slave traders in West Africa and enslaved in South Carolina.

In a bid to secure her freedom, Diallo must navigate through the American Revolution in New York and the isolated refuge of Nova Scotia.

"She's a fantastic, interesting character who's such a survivor," said Virgo. "When I read the book, I felt really connected to her story, to her desire to want to go back home to Africa."

Along the way, Diallo falls in love with fellow slave Chekura Tyano, played by Lyriq Bent.

"I think it's an incredible love story with the backdrop being a period piece of slavery," said the Jamaican-born Bent, who describes filming in South Africa as "life-changing."

While the themes of love, loss and the desire to go home will be familiar to audiences, Ellis said the history of black Loyalists in Canada may not be as well-known.

"I hope that people see it as a living history," she said. "I think there are a lot of people who are probably like me and not aware of this history, especially the connection between the southern states and Canada, that migration."

It's a sentiment shared by Gossett Jr., who plays Daddy Moses.

"It's time for these kinds of stories," said Gossett Jr., who won an Emmy Award for his role in the 1977 television miniseries "Roots."

"It's like 'Roots' but another slant of it. It's another story of how people went from one place, came out of bondage, and with courage and strength started a new community and new life."

Gossett Jr. said he hopes the audience of "The Book of Negroes" will learn about the courage of those who came before them.

"It's important to know if it weren't for that courage they really wouldn't be here watching the TV in the first place."

Follow @melaniepatten on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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