Lawrence Hill's prize-winning novel The Book of Negroes small screen adaptation is about to premiere, thanks, in part, to some strong Nova Scotia connections.

After winning the admiration of Canadian readers, as well the prestigious Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2008, The Book of Negroes miniseries premieres tonight at 9 p.m. AT on CBC. 

Clement Virgo on set in Shelburne, Nova Scotia

Clement Virgo on set in Shelburne, N.S., during filming. (CBC)

The story follows Aminata Diallo, played by Aunjanue Ellis, who is forced into slavery as a child in West Africa and taken on a slave ship to the United States. She is put to work in an indigo plantation in South Carolina. 

After one of her slave owners takes her to New York City, she escapes to the safety of Canvas Town, an early Black settlement in lower Manhattan.

She survives the American Revolution, and helps register 3,000 black Loyalists in the Book of Negroes, a historic British military ledger that recorded their passage on ships sailing from Manhattan to Nova Scotia. 

Diallo ends up in Shelburnesettles and spends some time in nearby Birchtown. As an old woman, she eventually travels back to her homeland in Sierra Leone.

The series began filming in South Africa and has moved to a dozen different locations, including Shelburne and the historic Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton. 

The fortress has been a film set before, but with close to 100 locals hired as extras, this was one of the biggest productions the region has ever seen.

Oscar winners Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lou Gossett Jr. also star in the series, along with Lyriq Bent, Republic of Doyle star Allan Hawco, Greg Bryk, Ben Chaplin and Jane Alexander.

'The story takes place here'

Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo directed the six-part TV mini-series. He says it was important to him to be authentic, and so this past May, he took the production to shoot in Shelburne.

This was Virgo's third film shoot in Nova Scotia. He praised the province's great film crews, who he describes as passionate and keen. He says he was impressed that most of the crew had read the book.

Aunjanue Ellis, The Book of Negroes

Aunjanue Ellis appears in a scene from the miniseries The Book of Negroes, based on the acclaimed novel by Lawrence Hill. Ellis stars as Aminata Diallo, who is taken by slave traders from West Africa to the U.S. and her life through the American Revolution, escape to Canada and her ultimate freedom in England. (CBC)

"I love the crews here and the story takes place here. It didn't seem right to shoot it somewhere else. She sails from New York to Shelburne. And I wanted to come to Shelburne," he says. 

"What's great about a town like Shelburne, they've kept that history. And you can turn your camera anywhere and you can really feel like you're back in 1783. I wanted to create Birchtown in Nova Scotia, to be here, to show that history."

Virgo honouring his own roots

Virgo says it was thrilling to see the words come to life for the first time on the screen, and although this television adaptation had the potential to become an educational history lesson, the director says that was not his intent.

Part of the reason Virgo wanted to tell this story is because it's about names. 

"My name is Clement Virgo and Virgo, I suspect, is the name of a slave owner at some point in history. At some point in history, one of my ancestors was owned by someone named Virgo, and they took on that name. In the actual Book of Negroes people write their names down and who they are and where they came from. As part of my own history I was really interested and moved by that idea," he says. 

'I love the crews here and the story takes place here. It didn't seem right to shoot it somewhere else' - Clement Virgo

"If you're from China and you have a certain name you know what your history is but for a lot of blacks in the diaspora, they don't know even which part of Africa they came from or what their name was because that's part of that history was to change all that. And what's great about the book is that Lawrence Hill creates a narrative where you get to learn some of that while being emotionally moved."

The Book of Negroes will air on Wednesdays until Feb. 11.