Hampton University and BET presented an early screening of BET's newest mini-series, "The Book of Negroes," starring Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Louis Gossett, Jr. The University screening was Feb. 4 in Ogden Hall. Ellis, the film's leading actress, answered question in a panel discussion afterwards.
The mini-series, based on Lawrence Hill's novel, "Someone Knows My Name," tells the dramatic journey and life of Aminata Diallo (played by Ellis), a young West African girl, abducted from her village and sold into slavery in South Carolina. It further shares an untold side of history.
"Our understanding of [Black] participation in the Revolutionary War begins and ends with Crispus Attucks being the first to die on the American side," said Ellis, "but this series captures the stories behind Blacks fighting on the British side during the war for independence and then being promised freedom and safe passage to Nova Scotia."
"Our history isn't just something to put on a document or in a photograph on the wall, said Ellis, the SAG-award winning actress from "The Help." "It is something that we need to live by and forever learn from."
The mini-series is different from most slave narratives because it is told from a woman's perspective—and one that can easily be described as a feminist. Ellis describes her character as both a revolutionist and feminist, especially in the film's jaw dropping moment when she stands up to then-president George Washington about slavery.
"Aminata embodied both a feminist and revolutionist at the same time and that is something very powerful for us to recognize," said Ellis. "Those two concepts are nothing new and definitely did not start in the 60's, but a lot sooner than we were taught to believe."
A celebration of black love is showcased during the series as well, Ellis said, because it shows a black man and black woman loving each other shamelessly. Ellis believes the series will create controversial opinions and statements, but "you should never shy away from controversy because it invites dialogue and feeds an intense curiosity to understand the actual facts," she said.
Many people do not know that "The Book of Negroes" is an actual hand-written document that listed Black passengers leaving New York to Nova Scotia on British ships in 1783. It gave their name, age, physical descriptions, and status of being freed or slave. Aminata was commissioned to write the document's contents.
During the Q&A, it was asked how Ellis viewed the similarity and difference between this series and other shows like Scandal and Empire.
"I celebrate the success of those shows along with their creators and actors because it's entertaining and fun, but those shows don't do what this series does," said Ellis. "This isn't to say that they aren't relevant or valuable. Instead I am saying that there is space for all of it, but we have to demand it. It's our responsibility."