The Book of Negroes: Part One
An unfamiliar national history evolves as a national artistic treasure.
Damon D’Oliveira (Producer) and Clement Virgo (Director)
The six-part mini-series based on the book by Lawrence Hill and directed by Clement Virgo, swept the Canadian Screen Awards this year, collecting a total of 11 statuettes, including Best TV Movie or Limited Series and Best Cross-Platform Project – Fiction. Five years in the making, this was a heartfelt win for the team behind the production.
It all started when Clement was dragged over to a bookshelf in Indigo by his friend and singer Molly Johnson, who demanded that he read the novel. From the very first line he was captivated by Aminata, a historical fiction heroine. Soon after, Clement and Producer Damon D’Oliveira convinced Lawrence to work with them and Lawrence and Clement began writing the screenplay together. Damon knew they had to keep Lawrence on board for the journey. From his extensive research for the book, Lawrence was well-informed on the history of Black Loyalists and the settling of Nova Scotia.
On the set of The Book of Negroes
With a fantastic script in place, Conquering Lion Pictures went out to pitch the idea. Initially, they had trouble getting international partners on board, as the focus seemed too nationalistic. Financing for a period piece can also be expensive and pitching the project as a feature-length film just wasn’t working. Realizing that TV was moving towards more event-driven stories, Damon suggested pitching the script as a miniseries. Soon after, CBC jumped on board and green lit the project.
In order to facilitate all of the necessary filming locations and to finance the production most effectively, The Book of Negroes was both an international coproduction between Canada and South Africa, as well as an inter-provincial coproduction between Ontario and Nova Scotia. From jungles to maritime harbours to major soundstages, the team took advantage of the amazing local landscapes and crews, in addition to the financial incentives these partnerships provided.
A realization from speaking with Producer Bill Niven, lead in Nova Scotia, is that that when passion and inspiration meet the ideal location, it’s nothing short of magic. There were five locations used in Nova Scotia alone, from the Fortress at Louisburg and the docks at Lunenburg, to the actual town of Shelburne itself.
On the set of The Book of Negroes
As for how Bill got involved with the project, he read the book when it first came out and fell in love with it, finding it “utterly captivating and inspiring!” After reading in Playback Magazine that Damon had acquired the rights, he immediately reached out. When asked about his experience producing The Book of Negroes, Bill speaks fondly. “This has been at the top of the list, the most gratifying project professionally and personally.”
The challenge of creating 1700’s New York City was one that Bill took on with the help of then head of Film & Creative Industries Nova Scotia, Lisa Bugden, whose idea it was to use Fortress Louisburg. Damon, Bill and Clement went out to see the Fort and were sold on the spot. It had the right look and feel and would fit the architectural style of New York at that time, which was originally a Dutch Colony.
While on location in Nova Scotia and on the eve of the first day of production, cast and crew gathered with the descendants of the Loyalists upon whom the film is based for a barbeque celebration at the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre. There were plenty of moments to cry during filming but this time it was out of pure joy as they were welcomed into the community.
Bill Niven (Producer)
“That community touched me. To be part of the team that brought this story to a world audience was a big privilege.” – Bill Niven, Producer
In South Africa, locations that fit the bill included winery estates, beaches and jungles. One particularly memorable location was a jungle not far from Nelson Mandela’s home village, where locals came out to help build sets. They thatched huts and built structures to be as original as possible. The Book of Negroes was truly an international coproduction in every sense of the word.
The series has gone on to be nominated at the Critics’ Choice and Peabody Awards. The series is also being used in classrooms around the country to broaden Canadian History curriculum. While Clement says his first priority was to entertain (he is humbly reserved about the series being used for education), Lawrence hopes that the series will further discussion amongst a wider audience. He doesn’t want us to wait for terrible things to happen to force us to talk about our history. Before the book and film, the 3000 black immigrants that came north during 1783 were discussed far less often.
The Book of Negroes aired on CBC in January and February 2015 to some of the highest ratings ever - an average of well over a million viewers per episode. It also aired to rave reviews on BET in the United States and Africa and is being distributed globally by Entertainment One. Whether you’re watching it for the first time or enjoying it again, you can see it online at CBC.ca, Shomi, Hulu or purchase it on iTunes. And get the BON Historical Guide created by Secret Location in your App Store. The discussion continues on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.