BET goes for prestige with 'The Book of Negroes'

By RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com, originally filed Friday, February 14, 2015

BET is a network that has never won an Emmy. Like MTV and VH1, its origins are in music. And critics in the past have raked BET over the coals for its representation of black culture.

But in recent years, BET has been growing up. Last year, it buried its 14-year-old daily music show "106 & Park." It has added scripted comedies such as "The Game" and a well received Atlanta-based hour-long drama "Being Mary Jane" starring Gabrielle Union.

Now it’s going full blast into prestige drama with a sprawling, ambitious historical six-part miniseries “The Book of Negroes,” a project that could have easily landed on Showtime or HBO. It debuts Monday at 8 p.m. and runs for three consecutive nights.

Evoking the groundbreaking 1977 ABC miniseries "Roots," "The Book of Negroes" follows the life of Aminata Diallo, played with grace and grit by Aunjanue Ellis ("Ray" and "The Help").

Set in the late 18th and early 19th century, Diallo is abducted by slave traders from Sierra Leone at age 11 and sent to South Carolina as a slave. She is beaten and raped. She has a baby, who is sold off.

As an adult, she escapes her slave owner in New York at the start of the American Revolution. She is freed after joining the British and sent to the British colony of Nova Scotia before returning to Africa. She ultimately moves to England where she joins the movement to end the slave trade.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Louis Gossett Jr. (who was in the original "Roots') are part of the cast.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

To Charlie Jordan Brookins, BET vice president for programming, " 'Roots' is the mother ship. Its foundation is an epic story rooted in slavery. That's where the comparison is real. This story has a backdrop of slavery but focuses on one woman's triumph and journey. 'Roots' take you through the lineage of a family while this is focused on a woman who is undaunted in her desire to return to her homeland. It's a beautiful love story and more importantly, illuminates part of history that is little known."

BET didn’t do this expansive production alone. In a case of unusual alliances, the network worked with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which aired the series last month to strong ratings. It was largely shot last year in South Africa and Nova Scotia.

“We had an extraordinary reaction in Canada,” Ellis said in a recent phone interview. “They invited us to Parliament and we received a standing ovation. We had tea with the Prime Minister’s wife. The reaction we had from all walks of life was special.”

Ellis, who loves historical dramas, said she “stalked the project” before it became official. She immersed herself in the original historical “The Book of Negroes,” which lists 3,000 slaves and free black people who supported the British cause. And she read Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel, featuring the Diallo character. Hill’s book was originally titled “The Book of Negroes” in Canada but when it was released in the U.S., it was renamed “Someone Knows My Name.” BET chose to keep the original book name for the miniseries.

Ellis’ research paid off. She landed the part of Diallo, who over time learned to read and write and charmed many white people with her intelligence and skills. In return, many helped her along the way when they didn't have to.

The actress, who grew up in Mississippi, wanted to capture one aspect of Diallo that she felt stayed with her despite the many setbacks and tragedies in her life: a capacity for joy. “She is the type of person who would be dancing at age 84 the same way she did when she was 12,” Ellis said. “I wanted her to be the type of person who made people feel good around them. As she aged, her body may have moved slower, her limbs were heavier but her central constant was joy.”

Despite the fact she was in practically every scene, Ellis said this was not work for her. “I felt like I was doing service to someone I believed in,” she said. “I really believed in this woman.”

"There was this magic in terms of her connection to the spirit of this woman," Brookins said. "That really took her to the top."

Brookins' favorite moment comes in the first hour when 11-year-old Diallo is on the slave ship and repeats all the slave's names out loud. "She gives value to them by calling out their names," Brookins said. "That's so much about what the miniseries is about. It' about calling out your name, writing your name, having value. That scene gets me every time."

Although Diallo is fictional, “she’s a mosaic,” Ellis said, “a walking symbol of all those people who followed her path.”

BET isn't shying away from more big projects. It's considering a miniseries about Nelson Mandela. And while its current docket of original scripted programming is rather slim, Brookins said they are going to announce several new series in the spring: "We have  a robust pipeline."

TV preview

“Book of Negroes”

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Feb. 16-18, 8 to 10 p.m. each night, BET