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.”
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