Director Clement Virgo on the renewed resonance of ‘The Book of Negroes’

Director Clement Virgo on the renewed resonance of ‘The Book of Negroes’

TORONTO — When Clement Virgo saw the video of a white police officer pressing his knee on a Black man’s neck, he recognized the image immediately.

The visual horror of George Floyd’s death is seared into our collective consciousness, the Canadian director says, because it’s symbolic of a hateful, ongoing history.

“That’s not the first time that image has occurred,” said Virgo. “It’s happened since slavery all the way through today, where voices of individuals were suppressed with a knee on the neck.”

Virgo predicts that past and present racist violence will shape the way viewers see his 2015 miniseries, “The Book of Negroes,” when it returns to CBC for a three-part encore broadcast from Sunday to Tuesday.

Based on Canadian author Lawrence Hill’s acclaimed novel, the six-episode epic follows Aminata Diallo, played by Aunjanue Ellis, from her abduction from her West African village as a child, through her lifelong struggle to escape enslavement in the U.S. and return home.

Revisiting the show, Virgo said he was struck by the modern parallels to our current reckoning with systemic racism.

“We’re in a climate now where the dominant conversation is around how do we reconcile our history, and how do we move forward in the future,” said Virgo, 54.

“What is the most equitable way to recognize that history and to acknowledge that there has been suffering and that there has been pain?”

Before reading “The Book of Negroes,” the Toronto-based filmmaker said he had to overcome his own resistance to the idea of telling a so-called “slave story.”

But at the urging of jazz singer Molly Johnson, he decided to give the book a shot. In it, he found a female-led adventure, a love story and an unknown history that echoed his own.

Raised in Jamaica amid the political violence of the 1970s, Virgo’s family immigrated to Canada when he was 11. He said he related to Aminata’s emotional journey of being uprooted from home, and striving to find her place in a new world.

Virgo said he initially planned to adapt “The Book of Negroes” as a film, but despite the 2007 novel being an international hit, he struggled to find financing.

CBC was first to come on board, he said, and partnered with American channel Black Entertainment Television to develop the script into a miniseries.

Big-name actors such as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Louis Gossett Jr. signed on to star in the project. The shoot proved to be as sprawling as its source material, filming on locations from South Africa to Nova Scotia.

As a director, Virgo said he had to be mindful about how to depict the brutal violence of slavery in a way that honoured its painful history without veering into traumatization, particularly given that he was working with Canadian child actress Shailyn Pierre-Dixon for the first episode.

“I don’t want to present a catalogue of horrors to the audience, but I want them to psychologically and emotionally feel and identify and recognize the injustice,” he said.

“It’s not so much about seeing the violence … but feeling that pain.”

While it was a long road to wrapping production, Virgo said when his mother saw the series, she reminded him why it was all worth it.

“She said, ‘That’s why I immigrated to Canada, so you could make this series,’” Virgo recalled.

“It was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.”

“The Book of Negroes” draws its title from a real historical record of 3,000 Black refugees, many of them former slaves, who were resettled in Nova Scotia after siding with the British during the American Revolutionary War.

Virgo said he’d like to see more of Canada’s Black history shown onscreen.

Working across the border, Virgo said there’s a stronger sense that stories of Black struggle and survival are part of U.S. identity. Here, he said, entertainment executives pay lip service to increasing diversity, but often treat projects led by people of colour as “charity work.”

“(Black) history is not a separate history. It’s integral and integrated into the fabric of Canada,” he said.

“I’m hoping that in Canada, it becomes a part of our ecosystem. That it’s not just an afterthought.”

The first instalment of the “The Book of Negroes” airs on CBC on Sunday. It’ll be preceded by a one-hour TV special, “Being Black in Canada,” featuring interviews with Virgo, Hill and some of the show’s stars.

The broadcast is part of CBC’s special programming in honour of Emancipation Day on Aug. 1, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery across the British Empire.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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