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'Book of Negroes' tells little-known tale of black Loyalists in Nova Scotia

Canadian director Clement Virgo poses for a photo on the set of

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Canadian director Clement Virgo poses for a photo on the set of "The Book of Negroes" mini-series being shot in Cole Harbour, N.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Pittman

HALIFAX - Filmmaker Clement Virgo wasn't sure what to make of "The Book of Negroes" when he first came across Lawrence Hill's 2007 bestseller.

Virgo, the African-Canadian director of "Poor Boy's Game," was thrown by the novel's title, which is derived from a historical document containing the names of black Loyalists.

"I was a little bit reluctant to read the novel at first because of the title, because I didn't know what 'Book of Negroes' meant," he says.

"When I finally did read it, I fell in love with it. It took me about three days to finish it and once I did, I called Lawrence."

It wasn't long before Virgo was meeting with the award-winning Canadian author to pitch filming his epic story of Aminata Diallo, an African woman kidnapped by slave traders in West Africa.

"Here is a woman who was taken from her home and sort of pulled through a maelstrom, not unlike, say, Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz,' and all she wants to do is find her way back home," says Virgo, taking a brief break during filming "The Book of Negroes" near Halifax.

Virgo and Hill co-wrote the script for the six-part miniseries starring Aunjanue Ellis ("The Help") as Diallo, and Academy Award winners Louis Gossett Jr., and Cuba Gooding Jr. The Canada-South Africa co-production will air next year on CBC in Canada and BET in the United States.

The cast also includes Allan Hawco, Lyriq Bent and Ben Chaplin. Principal photography began earlier this year in South Africa before moving to several locations in Nova Scotia.

For Hill, it's a chance to tell his tale in a new medium — an opportunity he says is "quite exciting."

"It has come to life, it's really quite stunning," says Hill, who's made several visits to set. "It always takes my breath away a little bit and surprises me to hear an actor express the words that I've had kicking around in my head for years."

Hill's novel follows Diallo as she is enslaved in South Carolina and navigates her way through the American Revolution in New York, the isolated refuge of Nova Scotia and the jungles of Sierra Leone in a bid to secure her freedom.

On this day, a waterfront park in the Halifax suburb of Cole Harbour is filling in for Birchtown, N.S., one of the largest settlements of black Loyalists. It's almost May, but every breath hangs like smoke in the cold, damp air as Gossett Jr. films a scene with a group of children who huddle under blankets between takes.

It's supposed to be winter in this scene, remarks one crew member. The only thing better would be real snow.

But bringing the production to Nova Scotia is about more than just an ideal backdrop of grey skies. Entertainment One, the studio behind the miniseries, says it's the history of what took place here that's important.

"It's going to open up a new piece of Nova Scotia in North America and internationally to the people who watch," says Margaret O'Brien, president and chief operating officer.

Hill says the miniseries will include some departures from the novel, but its heart — and its lessons — remain intact.

"I hope that it will excite a whole new generation of Canadians and other people in other countries about the story of the black Loyalists," he says.

"I think black history in Canada — slavery, freedom, segregation, the fight for human dignity — is still a story that's largely unknown in this country."

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