Washington Black events aim to connect production crew with Black Nova Scotian communities
'I wanted to be able to come to this community and make and leave a tangible difference,' says showrunner
The showrunner of a TV series based on Esi Edugyan's novel Washington Black says shooting in Nova Scotia for the past few months has felt like coming home.
Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, who is also a writer and executive producer on the Disney+ series, called Nova Scotia "one of the most gorgeous places" he's ever shot. He also said the cast and crew have particularly appreciated connecting with local communities.
"Being able to tangibly touch and feel the Black Nova Scotian community here, which is such an important part of the book and important part of the show," he told CBC Radio's Information Morning on Friday.
"A barber cut my hair one day and just casually mentions that his family have been here for 500 years."
Listen to Selwyn Seyfu Hinds's full interview with Portia Clark:
The novel Washington Black follows a young Black man, George Washington Black — Wash for short — on an extraordinary series of adventures after he flees his former life as a slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados.
Wash's journey takes him all over the world, but one of his first stops is Nova Scotia.
The TV adaptation of Edugyan's story began shooting in the province in March, including in Lunenburg, The Ovens, Mount Uniacke and Halifax. It's expected to wrap up production here next week.
Edugyan told CBC News in a recent interview that she wanted to show the complexities of Black settlement in Nova Scotia.
The character of Wash expects Nova Scotia to be a haven for him, given Canada's connection to slavery as being the last stop on the Underground Railroad.
"He's going into it, expecting to find that he's fully accepted and greeted," Edugyan explains, "and that ends up not being the case. He finds that this is a place of great fractiousness."
The migration of Black Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War made Shelburne, the town where Wash takes refuge in her book, the site of the largest colony of free Black people outside of Africa at the time.
However, as a result of the racism and discrimination the Black Loyalists faced, Shelburne was also where Canada's first recorded race riots took place in 1784.
Will the Black community benefit?
An open letter written by Shekara Grant, a founding member of the Change is Brewing Collective, and posted on Instagram in February expressed concerns about people profiting from this difficult history without sharing the benefits with, or addressing the current problems facing the community the story is about.
Grant's letter questions the inclusion and consultation of Black Nova Scotians in the show's production planning. She wrote that while it's important to share their stories of historic inequality, the Black community of south Shelburne is still dealing with environmental racism.
Since 2016, a group called the South End Environmental Injustice Society (SEED) has been lobbying unsuccessfully for access to uncontaminated drinking water.
When asked about these concerns, Hinds said, "I wanted to be able to come to this community and make and leave a tangible difference as much as I could."
Hinds said his team has hired Black Nova Scotian background actors and crew members. In order to engage and involve the community, the production is hosting a series of events called Washington Black Talks.
"No single production can change the entire face of things, but I certainly think we've been able to have a substantial impact here," Hinds said.
Washington Black Talks
Hinds said the events are open to the public, and a chance to meet and have open conversations with himself, other Black writers, actors and co-executive producer and star actor Sterling K. Brown.
While not exactly consultation events, he hopes having direct access to Black people who are making a living in Hollywood will make the dream more accessible for Black Nova Scotians who are also interested in careers in the industry.
"[It's] just us talking to the community," Hinds said. "I can tell you personally that my own path, what I'm doing now, didn't come about until I met a director, Mr. Reggie Hudlin, who looked like me."
The next Washington Black Talks event is Sunday, June 19, at the Black Cultural Centre in Cherry Brook from 1 to 3 p.m. AT.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning and Mainstreet