Since ABC's landmark miniseries "Roots" drew record ratings nearly four decades ago with its tale of brutality, survival and eventual triumph during America's era of slavery, the majority of dramatic films and TV shows dealing with the same topic have one thing in common — the central figure is a black man.
Although strong female characters are often present, "12 Years a Slave," "Django Unchained," "Amistad" and "Glory" are told principally from the male perspective. BET's first miniseries "The Book of Negroes" focuses on a young girl growing up in Africa who is captured by slave traders and brought to America.
The series, which premieres Monday and airs for three consecutive nights, is the network's bid to join the growing ranks of prestige original programming among cable networks. "The Book of Negroes" marks BET's first attempt at a TV miniseries, which have proliferated because of the popularity of History's record-setting "Hatfields & McCoys" and FX's award-winning "Fargo."
Based on a novel by Lawrence Hill, the six-part miniseries revolves around Aminata Diallo, who navigates her way through the American Revolution, the isolated refuge of Nova Scotia, and the treacherous Sierra Leone before finally securing her freedom in England at the dawn of the 19th century.
Starring as Diallo is Aunjanue Ellis ("Get On Up," "Undercover Brother"). Joining her in the large cast is Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Jerry Maguire"), Jane Alexander ("The Cider House Rules") and Ben Chaplin ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs"). Louis Gossett Jr., who won an Emmy for his supporting role in "Roots," also co-stars.
The series further distances the cable network from the time several years ago when it was known for airing raunchy music videos. In recent years, the network has gravitated toward more upscale fare, including sharp comedies ("Real Husbands of Hollywood) and scripted dramas ("Being Mary Jane").
"It's very exciting for us for 'Book of Negroes' to be our first miniseries," said Debra L. Lee, chairman and chief operating officer of BET Networks. "My vision for BET is to be a well-rounded network. There are so many stories in our culture to tell, and I'm so proud of this. I'm hoping that it's 'Roots' for a younger generation."
Lee added that she felt that the miniseries would have widespread appeal: "It's a universal story of a legendary woman. There's loss, a long journey and triumph."
Although there are moments of uplift, the miniseries also contains its share of harrowing sequences and violence. Ellis said that although the role presented challenges, she embraced the character, calling the experience life-changing.
"She had a spirit inside her that still lingers in me," said the actress by phone. "She had the ability to survive and excel. I feel forever changed by playing someone like her."
The project has an American-Canadian pedigree: Clement Virgo, who directed the miniseries and developed it with his production company Conquering Lion Pictures, and Lawrence Hill, the author of the novel, are Canadian. "The Book of Negroes," released in Canada in 2007, was published in the U.S. under the title "Someone Knows My Name."
"The core of this story is the resilience of this woman, even though she was captured," said Hill. "This also gives a realistic picture of how awful the slave trade really was."