BET's upcoming miniseries "Book of Negroes" is set during the same tumultuous American era as "Roots" and as last year's Oscar-winning "12 Years a Slave." Although the story contains depictions of atrocities, it is at its heart a tale of triumph.
"It's a very painful history, but this is about a woman's life and shows her persevering," said author Lawrence Hill, who wrote the book that is the basis for the miniseries. "At its core is showing the bravery of the human experience."
The story revolves around Aminata Diallo, who is kidnapped from Africa as a child and sold as a slave in South Carolina. Fleeing to Canada after the Revolutionary War, she escapes to attempt a new life of freedom back in Africa.
"Book of Negroes" is BET's first scripted miniseries, and is one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by the cable network, which targets African American viewers. It will air over the course of three consecutive nights in two-hour installments starting Feb. 16.
The Book of Negroes is a historical document that records names and descriptions of 3,000 African American slaves who had to work for the British army during the American Revolution in order to qualify for their freedom and were evacuated by the British by ship to points in Nova Scotia.
Diallo has a complicated life, including becoming romantically involved with a young black man who had helped slavers to capture her.
"Ultimately Aminata was a survivor," Ellis said. "She was earnest and proud, and she said, 'Survival ain't pretty.' She believed that what she was doing was surviving her husband and her community."
Gossett, who won an Emmy in "Roots," which first aired in 1977, for his portrayal of the slave named Fiddler, talked about the link between the two projects. He said producers were told that it probably wouldn't air in the South, but they decided to move ahead with the project.
When the miniseries became one of the highest-rated shows in TV history, it proved the power of the story, he said.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg, when we get to tell our stories," Gossett said. "You ain't seen nothing yet."