Q&A with Clement Virgo, director of the upcoming Book of Negroes mini-series

Toronto director Clement Virgo shares his thoughts on adapting Hamilton, Ont., author Lawrence Hill's 2007 classic for the small screen.

Filming to begin this fall in South Africa

Clement Virgo has been tapped to direct the Book of Negroes mini-series. (Supplied)

The Book of Negroes, written by Hamilton, Ont. author Lawrence Hill, was released in 2007. It has since sold nearly 1 million copies worldwide and won several awards, including the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Overall Book and the 2009 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads.

It was announced recently at the Banff World Media Festival that the book would be made into a mini-series to air on CBC and BET in the US.

The series will be produced by Conquering Lion Pictures and directed by Toronto's Clement Virgo. His most recent work includes directing seven episodes of the NBC/CTV show The Listener. He is perhaps most famous for the features Poor Boy’s Game, starring Danny Glover, and Lie with Me, a provocative romance that has played in over 45 countries.

The Book of Negroes is expected to begin shooting this fall in South Africa. CBC Hamilton talked with Virgo about the project this week.

CBC: Why did you decide to do a mini-series instead of a full-length movie?

CV: Well, because the book is, in a way, an epic, an epic and it’s based on a long journey for the main character. She goes from Africa, to South Carolina, to New York, to Nova Scotia, back to Africa and to London. So it broke up naturally into six parts and so I just felt like, "Why not make it a mini-series?" as opposed to compromising the story by forcing it into a feature-film format.

CBC: That was one thing I noticed that a lot of people are concerned about, that the  book would be watered down when it was converted to television, that some of the grit of the story would be left out. How do you feel about that?

'I want the audience to feel the story as opposed to just watching a spectacle and feeling detached from it.'—Clement Virgo, director

CV:  I’m not so much concerned about the, as you said, the grit not being in the story. For me, it’s more about the emotional impact of the story as opposed to the graphic nature of the story. We’re not going to shy away from the reality of what happened.

I want the audience to feel the story as opposed to just watching a spectacle and feeling detached from it. So for me, I’m not so concerned about it being watered down. I’m very, very confident that we’ll be able to translate the emotional impact of the story.

CBC: Aminata is a very strong character. Do you have anyone in mind to play her?

CV: Well, there’s a couple of people that we’re talking to right now. No one that I want to say just yet.

CBC: There was also concern that a more popular actress might bring too much of her own history to the table. Are you considering people that aren’t necessarily famous?

CV: Absolutely. For me it’s about the best actress. Someone who we’ll believe is from West Africa, someone that will have the emotional range to play Aminata. And someone that we will want to watch for six hours.

There aren’t a ton of what we would call "black female stars" now, there’s only maybe two or three legitimate stars. I don’t think people have to worry about that. But we do have a lot of great young black actors, they just haven’t been given the opportunity to star in a big mini-series or a big movie.

CBC: You’re also distributing the film the U.S. Is that correct?

CV: Yes.

CBC: And I understand that there was a lot of controversy over the title of the book when it was originally released there. How are you going to work around that for the mini-series? 

CV: I had problems myself at first around the title because I didn’t know what it stood for. Once you read the book or once you see the mini-series you understand that it’s actually speaking about an actual Book of Negroes.

In terms of the controversy in the States so far, when it was put out as a book it was changed to Someone Knows My Name, but so far we haven’t had any objections to that title. So right now it’s called The Book of Negroes in the U.S. and around the world.

CBC: Is there anything you want to add about your feelings about the story?

CV: Lawrence Hill wrote an amazing book. When I first read it, I fell in love with Aminata. The history I knew a little bit about. What’s good about her is she’s kind of like a Forrest Gump character in a way. She kind of takes us through a kind of history and intersects with history and really we become part of what she’s going through.

And there’s also details in that story that I didn’t know about. I learned a lot about  Canadian history. The great thing about the book is it never felt like it was "good for you" or that it was "important" or "medicine." It was that we’re on this action-adventure story with this character. That’s what I love about the book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.