Louis Gossett Jr. is no stranger to the television and film circuit. The 78-year-old was the first black actor to receive an Academy Award in supporting role for An Officer and A Gentleman, along with an Emmy for his work on the game-changing miniseries Roots. If voting goes his way, he could very well be nominated yet again for his role on buzz-worthy Canadian co-production The Book of Negroes, on which he makes his debut Wednesday night.
Not that Gossett took the role of Daddy Moses for the accolades. According to him the CBC/BET mini, which is based on the award-winning novel by Lawrence Hill, is a story that’s never been told on television before, and was one that helped him connect to his own history as well.
In an age where audiences are accusing the Oscars of being “white-washed,” Gossett’s voice on the matter is one that is heard perhaps more than most. In an interview with The TV Junkies, he chats about how the game has changed, why he took on The Book of Negroes in the first place, and why this project comes at a perfect time for North Americans.
The TV Junkies: Did taking on The Book of Negroes help connect you to your own history?
Louis Gossett Jr.: Absolutely, it reveals more stories, as does being in the arts. It’s wonderful because there is a tapestry of stories to tell. And the charm of it is that it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world: Cape Town Africa, on the Indian Ocean side. I’d been there five or six times, so I knew about the history. I guess we all do. But in the crew, one of the producers was the grandson of Nelson Mandela. And in the crew were white, coloured and black South Africans, working in conjunction to make this the best. It was a Canadian, American and Caribbean crew.
On my last day of shooting I stopped because they were all busy, props and everything and I said, ‘You guys don’t realize what you’re doing , do you?’ And they looked at me with a question mark and I said, ‘All of you guys in the past have had conflicts with one another, and here you are together, working on this beautiful piece of work and it’s gorgeous. And I want to say I’m thankful that you dropped all your other things to do this. What a wonderful thing for you to spread around the world.’
They applauded. And they hugged and shook each other’s hands. I’d like to spread that around the world. Obviously now it’s most important.
TTVJ: Why specifically now, would you say?
LGJ: It seems impossible, but all we have to do is cooperate and go in the right direction. We get a piece of work that’s necessary for our continuance, especially when we teach the same thing to our children. That’s the No. 1 agenda. So stories like this need to come out, we need to enjoy the theatrical part of it, applaud it, and go on with the next one until the level is clear. We’re going in that direction. And we can look at each other as brothers and sisters, essential on this planet.
TTVJ: The Book of Negroes has yet to debut in the States, but it’s already getting criticism for portraying slavery in a gratuitous manner and of course for the title. What do you say to the naysayers?
LGJ: Absolutely. My answer to them is that that I’m guilty of it and so is the director. It’s called contempt prior to investigation because of a word: negro. But finally when I got offered a part I opened up the book and never put it down. So I would suggest to all of those people who object to the word ‘Negro,’ that’s just a word. Let’s drop all of those titles today because there is a bigger picture. There’s a lesson that comes from Nelson Mandela. If anyone had any reason to be upset and angry, it would have been him. He came out of prison with a smile o his face. And he said, ‘It’s a much bigger picture than just me.’
It’s a global situation and we need to get together to stop violence because of the automatic assumption of superiority, the difference between one another. Conflict resolution is essential for the salvation of us as man and mankind. And we’re not looking at that. Perhaps The Book of Negroes will focus on the good in that story, between the English with Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, and Aminata and the reality of what life was like. It’s bigger than Roots. It’s bigger than 12 Years a Slave. But it’s going in the right, proper direction for friends of all colours and races and of all ethnicities and religions, to drop whatever it is that makes us in conflict and replaces it with something that is much more compassionate towards one another. It’s the bigger picture that we should all cooperate on. The Book of Negroes does that really well.
TTVJ: Have you had a chance to see the real life Book of Negroes on which Hill’s novel was sort of based?
LGJ: Yes, I have a photograph of me looking at the Book of Negroes, I think it might be a copy, but it’s in the archives in Washington, D.C., at the National Library. I was absolultly speechless.
TTVJ: What was your initial reaction to the show title?
LGJ: I had the same reaction as the director, book of negroes, give me a break. But then all of a sudden they wanted me to be a part of it, and I opened up the book and I never put it down.
TTVJ: How do you think the TV landscape differs today versus when you did Roots?
LGJ: I think we’re much closer today. It was a very pleasant surprise when Roots came out and pretty much stopped the world. So there are people who secretly wanted it to happen anyway. So now we’re much better. Everything is on the surface thanks to the Internet. Everyone knows everything; it’s pretty difficult to hide anything. Now we have an opportunity to air our feelings and our resentments, and get rid of them. So we can concentrate on one another.
TTVJ: Selma not being nominated at the Oscars caused a lot of backlash. What are your thoughts on its exclusion?
LGJ: It’s part of the death throws, that there have been enough slave movies and people are getting a little tired of being the villain. It’s a very fickle business between the audiences and the performers. They may not know what’s happening, but they’re feeling bad about themselves. And in the arts they need to clear the air and get a film that’s gonna clear the air so they can feel a bit better. There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re tired of feeling the villain—I think I would too. It’s like the Germans watching a movie about the holocaust, one more movie and they’ve had it. We’ve got to get on with this, and I think it’s part of the DNA of the old dying and the new consciousness beginning.
Selma didn’t get included in the Oscars, but it sure got included in the Screen Actors Guild Awards. So that’s us. That’s the sensitive artist. We need to get on with those issues and throw it out the door. Even my love story to Oprah Winfrey, who might be a little upset, is that the Oscar is wonderful, but it’s not the end all, be all to the results of Selma. Selma is bigger than the Oscars.
TTVJ: How are the Oscars different now than when you first won?
LGJ: I have a feeling it might be getting a slight corporate. It was started so the actors could compliment one another on their work. And now I think it’s getting a little more corporate. It’s a popularity contest, there’s money involved. And those who win the Oscars get the so called keys to the kingdom. My gentle suggestion is to go back to the most artistic. This year, that to me personally is Mr. Clint Eastwood. He’s an essential artist and a wonderful filmmaker. And it’s nice to see five of the best like that to be voted for. But we have to maybe separate the business, the corporate stuff, from the art of doing wonderful movies and wonderful performances.
TTVJ: How do you measure success when it comes to the projects?
LGJ: When you read the script of book you can absolutely see the potential of it being important and impressing the audience. In The Book of Negroes I see it, it’s happening in Canada even as I speak. Then you get an idea, I’ve been doing it long enough that you get an idea of how good it could possible be. Thank God to Clement Virgo our director, he made it. He did a beautiful, beautiful job and he’s going to be able to put it up on the shelf and it will come down years after and hold its value. It’s wonderful to be able to do those stories, it’s like a breath of fresh air. And it’s one of those things in history. I’m very fortunate to have participated in Roots, and then do the voiceovers for the audio book of 12 Years a Slave, and now to have a part in The Book of Negroes.
TTVJ: Would you like to add anything?
LGJ: I just think we need each other more than we think. There’s nobody better than anybody else. When you have the bigger picture, as Nelson Mandela said, the salvation of the planet, and the education of our children in that direction … that should be the No. 1 agenda for us all. If we do anything else then we may as well be in a 747 airplane at 30,000 feet that’s plummeting to the ground, while everyone is still fighting over who’s going to be in first class.
The Book of Negroes continues in Canada on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC. It debuts in the U.S. on Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. ET on BET.
Amber Dowling is a bonafide TV Junkie, critic and freelance writer who watches countless shows and lives for dramatic (fictional!) twists. She currently serves as the vice-president of the Television Critics Association and has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows across North America. An advocate for Canadian Television and a lover of the medium in general, Amber founded TheTVJunkies.com as a spot for fellow enthusiasts to connect and collaborate. She previously spent almost eight years as the EIC for TV Guide Canada.