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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta children whose only symptom of COVID-19 is a runny nose or a sore throat will no longer require mandatory isolation, starting Monday.
477 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Alberta on Thursday

Changes being made to the COVID-19 symptom list for school-age children

Three young Sylvan Lake residents are asking for lights to be added to the walking trail system to make them safer and less scary at night. Photo by @workinonmyfitness72
Young Sylvan Lake residents ask for lights to be added to walking trails

Three young Sylvan Lake residents appeared before Council recently to present their ask

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Town of Sylvan Lake recieves funding to help with COVID-19 related revenue losses

Minister Devin Dreeshen says the funding will help the Town pay staff and provide services

There were 410 COVID-19 cases recorded in Alberta Wednesday. (File photo by The Associated Press)
Alberta records 410 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday

Central zone dropped to 160 active cases

Shaun Isaac, owner of Woodchucker Firewood in Trochu, is awaiting a new shipment during a firewood shortage in the province. All of the wood he has left is being saved for long-time customers who need it to heat their homes. (Contributed photo).
Firewood shortage in central Alberta caused by rising demand, gaps in supply

‘I’ve said “No” to more people than ever’: firewood seller

Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton, on Monday, October 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta labour board orders health-care staff who walked off the job to go back to work

Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a news release that he was pleased with the labour board’s decision

Pilots Ilona Carter and Jim Gray of iRecover Treatment Centres, in front of his company’s aircraft, based at Ponoka’s airport. (Perry Wilson/Submitted)
95-year-old Ilona Carter flies again

Takes to the skies over Ponoka

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a daycare in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. Alberta Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz says the province plans to bring in a new way of licensing and monitoring child-care facilities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Alberta proposes legislation to change rules on child-care spaces

Record-keeping, traditionally done on paper, would be allowed digitally

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

Sen. Kim Pate is shown in Toronto in an October 15, 2013, file photo. The parliamentary budget office says a proposed law that would give judges discretion on whether to apply a lesser sentence for murder could save the federal government $8.3 million per year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
Judicial discretion for mandatory minimum sentences for murder would save $8.3M: PBO

The result would be fewer people in long-term custody at federal correctional institutions, experts say

Husky Energy logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 5, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Husky pipeline spills 900,000 litres of produced water in northwestern Alberta

The energy regulator says environmental contractors are at the site

A raccoon paid a visit to a Toronto Tim Hortons on Oct. 22, 2020. (shecallsmedrew/Twitter)
Who are you calling a trash panda? Raccoon takes a shift at Toronto Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons said animal control was called as soon they saw the surprise visitor

Most Read