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As the leading lady in her first major starring role on BET’s miniseries The Book of Negroes, actress Aunjanue Ellis credits The American Black Film Festival (ABFF) with giving her first best actress award in 2014. “I’ve never won anything before. Ever. So I acted like somebody who had never won anything in life. I acted a fool in front of Bill Duke and Charles Dutton,” says Ellis, laughing as she thinks back on the hysterical moment that followed when realizing she won ABFF’s best actress award for her role in the independent film, Una Vida: A Fable of Music and the Mind. “But you know what? That’s why I was so excited, because it’s a festival that celebrates independent filmmaking. And the work that I’ve done that I’m most excited by has been in the independent market. And playing Una Vida, being a woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s. And my mother actually has Parkinson’s. So when I shot that part, my mother at the time was in a rehab facility. So mornings I would be with her in Mississippi and literally go to New Orleans later on in the afternoon and almost do verbatim what happened with me and my mother that morning. So beyond my excitement that I won something for the first time in my life, it was a tribute to my mother. I got a chance to walk on that stage and say my mother’s name and say what that meant to me. And I say this all the time, if I could do stories like The Book of Negroes, like Una Vida, that’s all I would do. If I could make a living at it, if people would keep coming at me with those offers, I wouldn’t need to do anything else.”
Although new to winning awards, Ellis is not a fresh face in Hollywood. Her seasoned talent includes a resume full of reoccurring roles on TV shows like CBS’ NCIS: Los Angeles, The Mentalist, and HBO’s True Blood. She’s captured bit parts in critically acclaimed big screen movies like Get on Up and Notorious; while nailing small yet pivotal performances in Oscar winning projects like Ray and The Help. Always making time to appear in little known independent movies such as Romeo and Juliet in Harlem and Una Vida, Ellis’ first IMDb credit goes back to New York Undercover in 1995. And now, at 45, she’s finally leading her own miniseries with BET’s Book of Negroes.
Based on the award-winning novel by Canadian Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes is an actual document. Housed today at the New York Public Library, it lists the names of 3,000 black people who fought with the British in the American Revolutionary War to earn their freedom. In the miniseries, Ellis plays Aminata Diallo. A girl stolen from Africa and sold into slavery, Aminata grows to become an educated, strong-willed, free woman with an unstoppable destiny in telling the story of her people. “That’s what I want to do more than anything in his world. I want to tell the story of my people. They’re brown; they’re Asian, female, male. They are people who are under-voiced or left out or even worse, erased completely,” says the Brown University, African American Studies major from Mississippi. “Still my understanding of African American participation in the Oceanic pretty much came down to Crispus Attucks during the first couple minutes of fighting. That’s essentially it. And that’s just a total lie. I want people to watch this series because they need to know about that. They need to know that International archives are where The Book of Negroes actually is. And this is the first time that there is a record of our existence. Somebody wrote our name down. Described us, said who we are, said where we came from. This is the first time somebody put on paper that we existed. And these people who did, they were revolutionaries. The black revolution didn’t just start in the ‘60s.”
Ellis is a revolutionary in her own right. Last year, she paid for a confederate flag reading “We Shall Overcome” to hang over Mississippi’s I-55. Passionate and adamant about the plight of black people, she’s miles away from the apprehensive mentality many have when it comes to watching slave tales. While some are turned off by what’s seen as Hollywood’s over-saturation of Black films based on historical slave narratives, Ellis comes with a counter argument. “When you’re an enslaved person, someone is trying to strip you of your humanity. When black people turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to hear a slave story,’ they’re doing the same thing. They’re stripping those people of their humanity. You don’t want to hear their story because they are a slave? But we’re more comfortable seeing us represented in all kinds of ugly ways when we’re doing the writing, acting, and the directing,” she says. “I heard this at a screening, ‘Why does Hollywood only want to tell these stories?’ So we feel Hollywood is only comfortable seeing us in subservient parts and stories as slaves. So I think it’s a legitimate concern. I went through the same thing when I did The Help. And I get it completely. But my argument is that I don’t want to hear somebody tell me that a maid is not a hero. And I’m talking about somebody specifically who said this. I think there’s something incredibly sexist about that, for one thing, and it’s historically inaccurate. Those people who were marching in Selma and Tennessee and Alabama, they weren’t doctors and lawyers. They were domestics. So you don’t want to hear what they have to say because they were maids? My aunt was a maid. How dare you?”
“Now having said that, the problem with The Help is it was written by a white woman. [The Book of Negroes] was written by black folks. This is a black man [Lawrence Hill] finding a piece of history all of us should know about and creating a character in Aminata Diallo that is so beautiful and so well wrought. This woman is a feminist, a modern woman even in the 18th century. And she’s somebody that we all can anchor on to. And I could not be more proud of it. Whether people like me in it or not, that is what it is. But the story in and of itself is significant. It has value and it’s worth people seeing.”
The Book of Negroes Airs February 16-18 on BET at 8p/7c.
Be sure to check out the video below.