"The Book of Negroes": A Time of Awakening

By Alanna Smith ● January 21, 2015 20:00

The Book of Negroes: the title of the CBC’s latest miniseries. A title that only a month ago people may have shied away from because of the connotations of the word “negro”. In 2007, Canadian author Lawrence Hill bravely took this word and used it in the title of his soon-to-be award-winning novel, The Book of Negroes, which chronicles the journey of Aminata (played by Aunjanue Ellis), a young West African girl who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the early 1700s.

Now in 2015, that powerful title has caught the attention of audiences anew in the CBC’s six-part miniseries adaption of Hill’s novel – an experience that “changed [him] forever as a writer.” The Book of Negroes is directed by Clement Virgo, co-written by Virgo and Lawrence Hill and executive produced by Damon D’Oliveira, Conquering Lion Pictures, Out of Africa Entertainment, Entertainment One (eOne) and Idlewild Films. Despite what may be a controversial title to some, the miniseries’ debut brought in 1.7 million Canadian viewers, a number that suggests that audiences are ready to learn the truth about black history in Canada.

On the heels of the success of the first two episodes of The Book of Negroes, CFC sat down with Actors’ Conservatory resident, Cara Ricketts, who plays the character of Bertilda Mathias in The Book of Negroes, to gain some insight into her role and her experience working on the production. Her answers were thought-provoking and honest, with a subtle undertone of encouragement to us as audiences to learn more about who we are, where we come from and what that all means. Read her interview below.

CFC: How has working on The Book of Negroes influenced your perspective of black history in Canada?

CR: It’s proven to me that this is a time of awakening. Canada has always presented itself as the great north, where all the American slaves were able to run to and be protected. Yet, at the same time, it wasn’t until 2010 that the government of Nova Scotia apologized to Viola Desmond for her mistreatment at a segregated movie theatre. Canadians are more open now to learning about who we really are as a people and not just what is in the Canadian history textbooks of our school system which, at least when I was in high school, spent more time telling me about Europe than Canada.

CFC: Can you tell us more about your character, Bertilda?

CR: Bertilda Mathias is the feisty partner to Claybourne Mitchell. They live in Canvas Town, New York, which is pretty much a squatter city. They live in a house made from whatever materials they can find and help others build their own shacks, including Aminata. It was really a trip – to try and imagine living like that when we were shooting in South Africa and we would drive by the real thing, huge Shantytowns covered with little shacks. It’s a hard life for Bertilda and Claybourne and everyone in Canvas Town, but they choose it because it’s their chance at freedom, or as free as they can be at the time. While people in Canvas Town are runaways, Bertilda was born free. Her mother bought her own freedom before she had Bertilda and I believe this makes up a big part of who she is, she is a new generation of black folk who has never had to answer to a Massa.

CFC: How did you prepare for this role? What did you draw inspiration from?

CR: Mostly from The Book of Negroes and I also read slave narratives. I remember reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, and I read a few others but I really connected to her story and who she was, that I kept the book with me while we were shooting.

CFC: What was it like to work with Clement Virgo and Lawrence Hill, and being able to directly access the perspective of the author of the book that this mini-series is based on?

CR: Clement was fantastic!!! I loved being directed by him. I felt encouraged to explore and still knew that I was being taken care of – Mr. Virgo is the real deal. I didn’t meet Lawrence until we screened at TIFF [Bell Lightbox]. That was amazing! My Aunty Sharon for the longest time was the person who made me be responsible for “my world”. She would encourage my learning about Canadian history and politics. She introduced me to the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, the slave who burned down Montreal. She also placed a signed copy of The Book of Negroes in my hands when [it] first came out. So meeting Lawrence and being in The Book of Negroes was full circle in a way.

CFC: What have you learned/gained from your time at the CFC that has changed the way you now approach roles or performances?

CR: The CFC has changed the game for me. I would like to think that I would have gained the same knowledge on set, but it would have taken years, where at the CFC it’s been six months. The CFC has enhanced my acting techniques and it has made the set a far more comfortable place for me. Before, I would always get overwhelmed by it all. Now I have a better idea of what everyone’s job is, including my own, and that makes a big difference.

CFC is proud to celebrate in the accomplishments of alumni and residents like Cara and the CBC’s miniseries adaptation of The Book of Negroes. Be sure to watch episode three on CBC on Wednesday, January 21 at 9 p.m