Rewriting The Book of Negroes for the small screen

Photograph courtesy of the CBC
On location The CBC will broadcast The Book of Negroes, a six-part miniseries, in early 2015.

We novelists crave legitimacy. If a filmmaker acquires the rights to your book, that means you’re doing well—that you deserve a smidgen of respect. There are few ways for us to get ahead; we have been known to take on all manner of ignoble work in order to buy cheese and bread. I have written for newspapers, penned speeches for politicians I’d never support with my ballot, taught creative writing, led bicycle tours and canoe trips, washed dishes, and worked as a train operator. Trust me: selling film rights beats all of the above.

In January 2007, HarperCollins published my third novel, The Book of Negroes, in Canada. Later that year, W. W. Norton and Co. released it in the United States as Someone Knows My Name. I wanted a good filmmaker to option it, but two years passed and I lost hope. Then, in a now-defunct Toronto bookstore in 2009, jazz diva Molly Johnson bumped into director Clement Virgo, and she insisted that he buy The Book of Negroes. Clement had not read it; he found the title off-putting. The director, whose credits include Rude, Lie With Me, and two episodes of The Wire, wondered whether the word Negroes was being used like niggers. But Molly made him do her bidding. If you have ever met Molly Johnson, you will have no trouble believing this story.

Within a few months of that bookstore browbeating, Clement’s lawyer contacted my agent. I suggested we meet for lunch at Di Mario’s Trattoria, an Italian restaurant in Burlington, Ontario—an hour west of Toronto. If Clement would fight traffic to meet me in the sticks, I reasoned, he was truly interested. Clement and his business partner, producer Damon D’Oliveira, own the production company Conquering Lion Pictures. Both men came to Canada from the Caribbean: Clement from Jamaica and Damon from Guyana. Clement favours T-shirts and jeans, usually black. Damon, an actor-turned-producer, looks like he just stepped off the cover of a fashion magazine. Both radiate passion for their work and leave you with the gnawing sense that you should hit the gym more often. Apart from that, they could not be more different. Clement is a pensive director who eschews small talk. Damon handles business with aplomb, sliding effortlessly between Canadian, Guyanese, and Trinidadian accents. Had he not fallen into the world of film, he would have made a natural diplomat.

I don’t recall what we ate for lunch, but I do remember that nobody ordered booze. Clement asked for mint tea; Damon and I took lattes. Clement asked why the name of my novel had been changed for the US edition. I explained that Norton had planned to bring it out with the original title but discovered that some stores were reluctant to order a book with the word Negroes on the cover. I said that I preferred the Canadian title because it was also the name of a largely forgotten naval ledger used to record the exodus of 3,000 Black Loyalists from Manhattan to Nova Scotia at the end of the American Revolution. Clement and Damon said that they, too, preferred The Book of Negroes.

I liked the men sitting across from me: driven, energetic, and excited about my work. I knew I would have to waive my moral rights over the artistic direction of the adaptation, but I believed that Clement and Damon would welcome my opinions. Their lawyer sent paperwork to my agent, and soon we had a deal: they would buy the right to make a film based on the book, and I would be involved as co-writer.

Our first creative meeting took place in 2010 at Clement and Damon’s office in downtown Toronto. At that meeting, and at the thirty or so to follow, their assistants—aspiring filmmakers Maya Annik Bedward, Sarah Kolasky, Justin Giallonardo, and Thomas Pepper—took turns joining us. The assistants took notes, added their thoughts, brought in coffee and takeout, and taught me to use scriptwriting software. We sat around the desk that Clement and Damon share, a giant oak table big enough to double as a barn door. Clement sat at the head, with a bag of nuts within reach. I sat to Clement’s left on a pew-style wooden bench, hard and unforgiving, that seemed to say, Don’t get soft and comfortable—just get the job done. Damon sat across from me. An assistant sat to my left. We never met for less than four hours. Sometimes it was six hours, three days in a row.

At that first meeting, Clement said, “So, let’s just talk.” For a novelist, talking is a waste of time. You either write or you don’t. But Clement was serious. We started with the big picture. Which characters were most memorable and which could go? What about the seven key locations in Africa, North America, and Europe—would the film recreate each of those settings? How about the ways in which the characters came and went? In the novel, protagonist Aminata Diallo stumbles through many places: her native village in Mali; her long walk to the sea; her journey in a slave ship; and her time in and out of slavery in South Carolina, New York, Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and London. Clement likened the narrative to a road story.

I came to understand important differences between fiction and film. In the book, Aminata generally meets people and then is ripped from them when the time comes to continue her migration. But in the film, Clement argued, some of the minor characters would have to stick around longer. At one point, he looked at me and said, “In the novel, Aminata’s husband dies offstage. We don’t see his death. Larry, it doesn’t work that way on the screen.” Imagine watching a movie and being informed that a character has just died off-screen. If your lead character’s lifelong love is going to die, somebody had better kill him—and do it while you watch. This changed me forever as a writer. In my future novels, I will never again have a minor character die offstage.

Clement told me that a page of script equalled, roughly, a minute on screen. He started giving me instructions, such as: “That scene you’re going to write? The one that took up five pages in the book? You have a minute to get in and out.” It was exciting to respond to the dictates of brevity. We would spend hours talking about the details and structure of a scene, forging a consensus before Clement or I took a stab at a first draft. I was astounded at how quickly Clement envisaged scene structure. It seemed to run in the back of his head, like a drumbeat.

We spent a year writing the screenplay for a feature film, but Damon and Clement could not attract the financing they needed. So we switched gears, ripping it all apart and starting again with a six-part TV miniseries. This time it worked. The project became an official co-production between Conquering Lion Pictures and Out of Africa Entertainment in Cape Town, in association with Idlewild Films and Entertainment One. It will be broadcast in early 2015 by the CBC in Canada and BET Networks in the US, and later by ETV in South Africa.

As we wrote and rewrote, one of the most frequent conversations had to do with the female lead. Who would play Aminata? The protagonist is born free in Mali in the mid-eighteenth century but is kidnapped and forced into slavery in South Carolina; she manages to steal back her freedom in New York, sails to Nova Scotia, and returns late in life to Africa. Many of the black women starring in film and television are light skinned. But how would that play out in a movie about an eighteenth-century African—and how would black women respond if someone light skinned took that role? I had political concerns, and I expressed them: If a black woman with dark skin could not land the role of Aminata, what good part could she ever land? We talked, and I said my piece, and Clement and Damon listened attentively; but the bottom line was that they did not have to pay attention to a thing I said.

Clement and I agreed on most points, but there was one nagging disagreement that plagued us through the entire co-writing exercise. In the novel, Robinson Appleby—the first of Aminata’s two slave owners—is angry with her for getting pregnant without his permission. To punish her, he commits what is for a black woman a moral assault: he shaves off her hair. I held to the scene, because I felt that it demonstrated the slave owner’s power in a surprising and intimate way without resorting to bloodshed. But Clement did not want it in the miniseries. He worried that black audiences would find it offensive, and that the separate rape scene (how can there not be a rape scene in a miniseries about a slave woman?) would suffice. We tussled, and I lost.

Or so it appeared. As it happened, Aunjanue Ellis, an actor from Mississippi who co-starred in The Help, and who is sufficiently dark to depict an eighteenth-century African woman, was eventually cast as Aminata. A few days before filming began, I flew to Cape Town and had dinner with Clement, Damon, Aunjanue, and a few members of the South African production team. After everybody else had left, Aunjanue sat quietly with Clement and me. She had been studying an old script. To my astonishment, she said that her favourite scene was the one in which Robinson Appleby shaves the head of Aminata Diallo. The scene got a new life.

Watching the filming in South Africa and Nova Scotia was one of the richest experiences of my creative existence. The enthusiasm of the main actors, as well as the 4,000 extras—including Nova Scotians who had descended from the very Black Loyalists featured in the novel and miniseries—was deeply satisfying. As an extra, I drank and danced in the wedding scene in which Aminata and her husband jump the broom.

On set, a baseball cap on his head, Clement sometimes called out, “Larry, can you give us another line here? ” And I’d have five seconds to come up with it. At other times, Clement would shout: Aunjanue wants to say this. And we’d have to decide—yes or no. A film set is as busy as a beehive, and there are specialists for everything and everyone: hair stylists, makeup artists, a man whose job is to carry the rifles, another who looks after the horses, a woman who ensures that the baby (yes, a real live baby) is well taken care of, a woman who knows how to put a suckling pig on a spit and roast it over a fire, a fellow who carries sandwiches to you on a platter, drivers, sound guys, electricians. It’s hard to find a place to stand without getting in someone’s way.

It was a thrill to watch the first days of filming in South Africa with my second-eldest daughter, Caroline Hill, and to share the first days of filming in Nova Scotia with my youngest, Beatrice Freedman. Beatrice, fifteen, was ready to dive in. She became an extra (working far harder than I did, and getting more screen time), and then an assistant to an assistant director. Her job: to fetch actors from their trailers. It was a volunteer gig for Beatrice, and she became maniacally serious about it. She read The Book of Negroes before coming on set (she had not wanted to read it previously, having worried that it would upset her). Then she pored over the scripts. Then she studied the call sheets, and flew out of bed early each morning so that she could be among the first to arrive. To my amazement, she even bonded with Clement. On set, the man is all business. Works from dawn to dusk. Barely stops to eat. But Clement and Beatrice formed an easy alliance. When she didn’t have to fetch an actor, her favourite spot was right behind Clement’s shoulder, watching the scenes unfold just the way he did.

Eventually, the filming wrapped up, and in post-production an unexpected development took place. I had been wondering what the title would be. The CBC was committed to The Book of Negroes, but what about BET? In the end, the network decided to call it The Book of Negroes as well. And since BET was ballsy enough to call the miniseries by its original name, I decided to try again with my New York publisher. Next year, W. W. Norton and Co. will release a new American edition of the novel, titled The Book of Negroes.

This appeared in the January/February 2015 issue.

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill is a Canadian novelist, essayist, and memoirist. His books include the award-winning novel The Book of Negroes and the non-fiction work Blood: The Stuff of Life (which formed the basis of his 2013 Massey Lectures). He is currently completing a new novel.