Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Book of Negroes

When The Book of Negroes won Canada Reads I was able to buy a copy.  I read it as an entertaining story, but confess much of it was not properly understood.  I was conscious of story that stretched from African kidnappings to American slavery to the War of Independence to Nova Scotia settlement and over to Sierra Leone with some legislative impact in England.

I had met Lawrence Hill at a Human Library event held at the Hamilton Public Library.  He caught me with one of my prejudices; a black subgroup.  He did discuss this mini series which was in progress at the time, but we mostly talked of his personal history and marketing strategies which in part involved book clubs.  The mini series was a first as none of his earlier books had generated film interest.  The mini-series seemed the most practical way to convey a complicated book.

Special features of the DVD proved to be a treasure chest.  A female actress commented how she was impressed that the author could get inside female mind.  Lawrence Hill had written a few books previously mostly told from a male perspective.  He explained that he had been surrounded by strong women and he enjoyed listening to them and felt a woman's perspective would be a better way to tell the story.

Visiting his parents Lawrence picked up a book "The Black Loyalists" that had been written by a family friend.   The Book of Negroes was an actual document organized by the British Admiralty to record negroes eligible to move to Nova Scotia.  Lawrence felt Canadians although aware of slavery in the United States were unaware that it also existed in Canada.  The first slaves go back to 1628 in French Canada and did include indigenous people.  Lawrence's father, Daniel Hill, a black man had married a white woman and consequently moved to Canada.  Eventually he became the first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. 

Part of the movie was shot in Cape Town, South Africa just after Mandela had died.  Giulio Biccari, born in Johannesburg was responsible for the cinematography.  His films include  "Forgiveness" (2004),  "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" (2009) and "Black Butterflies" (2011)" and "The Heineken Kidnapping" (2011).    More on the No 1 Ladkies Detective Agency which was set in Botswana:  http://www.therealjohndavidson.com/2017/01/the-minor-adjustment-beauty-salon.html

Many authors find it difficult to deal with criticism and the changes to their original idea.  Lawrence recognized the story had to be cut down and he had been used to criticism from his journalism career  where it was common for editors to twist his written words.  Putting his novel into a mini series meant that the message would reach more people.  The word "negro" is an awkward one that Lawrence does not use much himself, but he wanted it included in the primary title.  A secondary title "Someone Knows my Name" was used in several English speaking countries, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.  It came from something said by one of the slaves who was pleased that someone called him by his proper name.

George Washington was a slave owner and felt strongly that blacks were American property  Guy Carleton used Book of Negroes to justify taking meant.  This scene was cut from the novel, but written in the series script by Lawrence.

Lawrence had written a number of fiction and non fiction books, grabbing national attention by winning the Canada Reads contest with "The Book of Negroes."  After meeting Lawrence I read his memoir, "Black Berry, Sweet Juice" which told of how he felt growing up as a racially mixed child, his education at Laval University in Quebec City and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.  Had done volunteer work in French speaking Africa and done journalism in Toronto and Winnipeg.  A new work of fiction, "The Illegal" combined his interest in running and involvement with diabetes and a concern for migrants.  He became the first author to win a second Canada Reads contest.   Read more about "Black Berry, Sweet Juice'  http://www.therealjohndavidson.com/2020/02/black-berry-sweet-juice.html

Clement Virgo was the director, co-writer and producer and thus worked very closely with Lawrence.  Born in Jamaica and educated in Toronto, Clement had a long history with films as a writer, director and producer.  Reflecting a personal interest one of his award winning films was "Poor Man's Game" (2007).  He directed two episodes of "The Wire" (2002). 

Aunjanue Ellis was chosen to play the lead, Aminata Diallo   who played virtually in every scene.  Some of her other films included   "Men of Honor" (2000 with Cuba Gooding Jr.) "The Help" (2011) and           "Designated Survivor" (6 episodes 2018-19).

Lyriq Bent played Chekura Tiano, the lover of Aminata.  They had met while he was assisting slavers marching some captured to a port.  Meeting at several intervals personifying how slave owners kept lovers separate from one another.  Born in Jamaica and educated in Toronto he achieved much of his success on American tv. series.

 Ben Chaplin plays Captain John Clarkson, the English naval leader who befriends Aminata and helps her out at several points in the series.  The British born actor made an American breakthrough with "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" (1996).  Another of his films was "London Boulevard" (2010).

Allan Hawco plays Soloman Lindo, a Jewish businessman who plays a critical role in Aminata's (and other family members) movements.  Born and raised in Newfoundland is most famous for "Republic of Doyle" as the lead actor, writer and producer and is set in St. John's where he lives.

Louis Gossett Jr. played Daddy Moses a religious and community leader. for two episodes  He was the first African American to win a Oscar for best supporting actor with "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982).  He also won a Primetime Emmy Award for an appearance in "Roots" (1977).  Played Anwar Sadat in tv mini-series, "Sadat" (1983,   Remember him in one episode with "The Good Fight" (2017).

 Cuba Gooding Jr. played a close friend to Aminata in two episodes  He also won an Oscar for best supporting actor with "Jerry McGuire" (1996) as an obnoxious football player.  Another notable movie he appeared in was "Selma" (2013). First drew attention as a break dancer.  

The book and the series are well worth your time.  Books generally give a fuller picture of what the author is trying to convey.  There must have been some interesting negotiations to set up a mini series.  The notion of a two hour film must have been rejected fairly early, but a mini series is a big step.  The advantage of the series is that it is a type of summary of the book and also has the benefit of further thought and collaborative thinking.  Assembling a cast and crew and organizing locations, costumes is a mammoth undertaking.  The message comes through.

Titles that have been bolded are ones that I have seen or read.

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