The Book of Negroes: Part Two
When producing an epic six-part mini-series, one of the main forces that will engage viewers and keep them coming back week after week is their attachment to the story’s characters. For Producer Damon D’Oliveira, finding the right cast was one of his most important jobs.
Aunjanue Ellis and Clement Virgo on set
In order to bring the full cast of characters to life, Damon and Director Clement Virgo held extensive auditions with people from all over the world. Being an international coproduction, they had plenty of choices and needed to represent both Canada and South Africa with top talent. The cast includes all-stars Aunjanue Ellis as Aminata Diallo (ABC’s Quantico), Lyriq Bent as Chekura Tiano (Rookie Blue), and Canadian rising star Shailyn Pierre-Dixon as young Aminata Diallo - all of whom won 2016 Canadian Screen Awards for their performances. Other lead cast include Allan Hawco as Solomon Lindo, Stephen James as Cummings Shakspear, Louis Gossett Jr. as Daddy Moses and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Sam Fraunces.
From the beginning, The Book of Negroes was a story with a unique perspective. When Lawrence Hill set out to write an epic about slavery in North America, paying particular attention to the Canada’s connection, he made an interesting choice – he made his main character a woman. This story is one of personal triumph, first and foremost, and in some ways the fact that the lead is a female makes it that much stronger.
“It’s the story of a woman’s life and her resilience in the face of incredible difficulties.”
– Lawrence Hill
Aunjanue Ellis and Lyriq Bent on set
When Aunjanue Ellis wrote a personal letter to Damon about how much she loved books growing up, her grandfather’s support and the importance of education, he had to see her in person. When they finally met, he knew at once they had found their Aminata.
Not only did she fit the role perfectly, she was always dedicated. On the very last night of shooting in Nova Scotia, they filmed a scene where Aminata has to escape from New York. It was midnight, cold, raining and in the middle of the woods. But as Producer Bill Niven recalls, Aunjanue didn’t hesitate or complain for one moment: “She nailed it! A consummate professional.” Not to mention she’s is a true sweetheart.
The next major role that had to be cast was that of Aminata’s friend and eventual husband, Chekura. Again the team saw a multitude of possibilities but in the end it all came down to chemistry. Lyriq Bent had the right chemistry with Aunjanue and the two lit up the screen.
Clement Virgo directing a scene in South Africa
In addition to the stars and supporting cast, the production employed hundreds of extras both in Canada and South Africa. Damon is extremely proud that the series is a Canadian production. He is grateful that this enabled him to discover new talent and to help lift them up along their journey; this includes helping newcomer Stephen James get the attention he deserves. But Damon is most proud of fighting for the bite-sized and brilliant Shailyn Pierre-Dixon.
"I couldn't imagine going through what she went through and still having the courage to fight," Pierre-Dixon says of Aminata's enduring strength through endless hardships. "I wanted to play her because she's just so inspiring to young women and to older women too and even to men. It's just an encouraging life lesson to everyone."
– Shailyn Pierre-Dixon
Beyond shooting the mini-series, the cast and creators are involved in the larger issues surrounding the film. Back when Damon was in theatre school in NYC, he had a part-time gig answering calls for the General Assembly at the United Nations. Many years later, he had the opportunity to go back to that same place with Clement and Lou Gossett Jr. in memoriam of 250 years since the end of slavery in the United States. They held a special screening of The Book of Negroes with an audience Q&A. Clement told a personal story of when he was a boy growing up in Jamaica and the powdered milk his mother would receive from the UN World Food Program. Damon remembers a similar story growing up in Guyana. Long since Canadian citizens, they were both overwhelmed to be part of such a commemorative event.
Extras on the set in Nova Scotia
As mentioned in Part One of this blog, the series won the 2016 CSA for Best TV Movie/Limited Series and Best Cross-Platform Project – Fiction. It also won Best Direction in a Dramatic Limited Series, Best Writing in a Dramatic Program or Limited Series, Best Original Music Score for a Program, Best Production Design or Art Direction in a Fiction Program or Series, and Best Costume Design.
Conquering Lion Pictures is based in Toronto, Ontario but their work continues to take them to new territories. Clement is now executive producing the upcoming drama Greenleaf with Oprah Winfrey, directing two episodes. This summer Damon was shooting another Canadian novel-turned-film, The Grizzlies, which explores how learning the game of lacrosse helped end the suicide epidemic in one Nunavut community. As a producer, Damon is drawn to social issues and stories with big characters. Both will be working with Lawrence Hill again on the film version of his new book, The Illegal. CBC is onboard and production is scheduled to begin in 2017.
Now that you’ve got some behind the scenes details, watch again online at CBC.ca, Netflix, Shomi, Hulu or purchase The Book of Negroes on iTunes. Let the cast and creators know how the film has impacted you on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.