Clement Virgo's 'Book Of Negroes'

An update on a project we’ve been following since 2011, when we first learned about it. As a matter of fact, November 2011 was the last time it was mentioned here, so it’s certainly been a little while with no updates.

Until today, what we’ve known is that Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo has been developing a highly-anticipated film adaptation of author Lawrence Hill’s award-winning bestseller, The Book of Negroes.

Boasting one of the strongest female characters in recent Canadian fiction, the novel’s synopsis reads:

“Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle — a string of slaves — Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic “Book of Negroes.” This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own. Aminata’s eventual return to Sierra Leone — passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America — is an engrossing account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey.”

When we last checked in on director Virgo’s progress, in late 2011, he seemed to be very well aware of the pressure that was on him to tackle this beloved novel on film, telling The Strand, “Naturally it’s a little bit daunting to take on this book… I feel a certain amount of obligation to Lawrence Hill and to all his readers, because the book is so beloved around the country and around the world.”

But it might be reassuring to some (especially those not already familiar with Virgo’s previous work) to know that the filmmaker isn’t at all interested in making “this-is-good-for-you cinema” as he put it (or castor oil films as Sergio calls them), nor is he going after what could be “your typical Masterpiece Theatre wig-and-wardrobe orgy” in the hands of the wrong director.

Virgo, whose own previous films are partly remembered for their “high-octane” style, with comparisons to early Spike Lee works (Do the Right Thing, notably), says he definitely understands the “energy” in the novel he is adapting, and knows what kind of film it deserves, stating, “It’s a very fast-paced, modern book… it’s not stodgy at all. From a visual standpoint, I want to capture the rhythm of the book, keeping it moving forward… It’s definitely not a Merchant-Ivory kind of movie.”

No, it most certainly shouldn’t be a Merchant-Ivory kind of movie, no disrespect to the producer/director duo! Sure, it’s a period piece; but please, no ostentatious sets featuring genteel, disillusioned characters!

Skip ahead to today, when I came across the below video interview with Virgo, in which he speaks with CityNews Toronto reporter Tammie Sutherland, about his filmmaking journey, past to present, and how life in Toronto shaped his career.

In the latter half of the interview, I learned two things we didn’t already know: first, it actually will not be a feature-length film. Instead, it’ll be a TV miniseries, which I’d say is more suitable for the material. It’s not a very long book at around 380 pages, paperback, but the material is weighty, and, I think, would be better told in long-form, instead of cramming it all into two hours…

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