Black women are leading a new era in Canadian film and television

@ samchizanga



NOW Magazine


I’ m browsing Twitter in July, following Canadian film industry channels that post about opportunities and development incubators. There’s a call out for a crew position. I tag a few friends I think are right for it. Swipe down. Refresh. And then there is a tweet from the Canadian Film Centre announcing that new fellows will be awarded a scholarship that offsets their fees plus a weekly stipend. It’s a monumental change. The celebratory replies say so, exalting at the removal of barriers that often make BIPOC filmmakers shy away from the illustrious programs. Amidst the digital applause are the notes of appreciation for Maxine Bailey, the recently appointed executive director at the CFC. Bailey is an industry mainstay, having spent more than a decade and a half at TIFF before joining the CFC. Her entrance into this role is part of a long- overdue shift that puts the power in the hands of those who have rallied around actionable change. It confirms what my peers and I have always known: Black women are often at the forefront of revolutionary changes. What we’re seeing in the Canadian film and TV industry is no exception. And Bailey has company when it comes to Black women shaking things up: there are also trailblazing women like Kadon Douglas at BIPOC TV & Film, Tonya Williams at Reelworld, Frances- Anne Solomon at CaribbeanTales, Joan Jenkinson, Maya Annik Bedward and Jennifer Holness at the Black Screen Office, and so many others. The shake- up in 2020 Conversations I have these days with mentors and peers have an optimistic undercurrent even when talking about all that needs to be done. It’s different from the energy in the years leading up to the summer of 2020. Up to that point, most BIPOC filmmakers were resigned to a future where you’d either need to leave the country or claw your way up the ranks of Canadian media. Then, the civil unrest ignited by the brutal murder of George Floyd became a catalyst; conversations that happened in safe spaces exploded to the top of the zeitgeist. In a bittersweet way, it became the driving force behind the momentum that would change things globally. That summer, the crisp graphics that took over social media centred around education, reflection and most of all accountability. Across all industries, from health care to media, Black people pointed at the elephant in the room; things were unbalanced and we would no longer accept a world in which those in positions of power did not actively work to create equity. There wasn’t a day in which you wouldn’t be invited to panels, surveys and long Twitter threads. The calls to action were extremely loud. Journalists used their platforms to amplify voices and conversations, organizations formed and exoduses from major broadcasters superseded the 24- hour news cycle. On one hand, it felt like the rug was constantly being pulled out from underneath the feet of those who had stood on magic carpets that easily took careers to new heights. At times it felt repetitive, sometimes aimless, like momentum was waning. Between the sharing of articles and open letters saying the quiet part out loud and tongue- in- cheek responses to the valid complaints about discrepancies in funding, we asked, often out loud “what’s the plan? Is anything going to change?” Calls to action In July 2020, BIPOC TV and Film responded to criticism regarding gatekeepers at Telefilm by launching a call to action for more transparency in the film funding process and support for underrepresented groups. Less than six months later, the answers started to form. Organizational leaders announced new solutions based on the challenges they experienced while impacting an entire industry. Filmmakers unapologetically told stories about what was most important to them. Journalists and thought leaders, amplified voices and shed light on disparities buried in surveys and studies. And quickly, the narrative snapped into focus for everyone watching, as if they collectively said, “Fine, we’ll do it ourselves.” Have you ever felt the ground slightly shift beneath you? The moment came, when the Black Screen Office was formed. Behind the desk, Holness, Jenkinson and Bedward formed part of a team that has gone on to launch career- shifting programs and address essential issues publicly. Recently, they headed to Cannes alongside the Indigenous Screen Office with support from Telefilm, bringing new Canadian faces to the illustrious French festival. Already an industry staple, Williams and Reelworld Film Festival launched Access Reelworld, a recruiting platform for BIPOC on and off the screen. “Reelworld uses their experience and scope to put people in places they need to be – they’re looking at areas others might not be,” says Sasha Leigh Henry, creator of Bria Mack Gets A Life ( coming in 2023). “They know there are so many ways to get people into the industry.” Samantha Kaine led the Producers Pledge, committing an industry response from people working behind the scenes, and the formation of IMPACT, a platform for producers and production companies to receive the support they need to thrive. This is some of the work done in the last few years, building on the foundation of industry veterans. “There are also numerous Black women behind the scenes at our funders, film festivals, broadcasters, banks and production companies making transformative changes when and where they can.” says Kadon Douglas, the inaugural executive director of BIPOC TV and Film. The symbiotic relationship between organizations and creatives has refuelled us, empowering us collectively to create and tell the stories that we haven’t seen in Canadian media. Before the shift of 2020, Ngozi Paul and Trey Anthony’s Da Kink In My Hair was one of the only Black Canadian sitcoms on TV. The final episode aired in the summer of 2009. The last time Canadians saw a local Black sitcom was 13 years ago. Across the industry, storytellers who were once relegated to bootstrapping every project were now in the spotlight. For the first time in Canadian history, an all- Black creative team, including showrunners Marsha Greene and Annmarie Morais brought a Primetime series to life: The Porter in 2022. Amanda Parris would shine a bright, funny light on the tokenization of Black actors in Revenge Of The Black Best Friend. These moments are not sequestered in the world of TV. Documentarians Yasmine Mathurin and Sharine Taylor invoked thoughtprovoking conversations about the expatriate experience with One Of Ours ( 2021) and Tallawah Abroad ( 2019). Short narrative films such as Fresh Meat ( 2021) by current CFC fellow Lu Asfaha uses satire ( and unsettling sound design) to illustrate how society treats Black people in professional spaces. Kourtney Jackson’s Wash Day ( 2020), an intimate portrait of Blackness, is a personal favourite. Both films have gone on to receive genre- critical acclaim alongside their international festival releases. This barely scratches the surface of what’s been done and what’s coming soon. When I ask the question “who is creating work that excites you?” I’m met with a million different answers: Joy Loewen, Lindsey Addawoo, Cazhmere, Kathryn Fasegha, Jackie Batsinduka, Fonna Seidu, Alicia K. Harris, Tara Taylor, Karen Chapman and on and on. Douglas summarizes this perfectly: “What I admire most about their work is the love they have for the community. It’s palpable. It’s in every frame, every decision in front of and behind the camera. Their fearlessness keeps me going.” There are many talented creatives rising the tides, breaking the rules and changing this world, so much so that this paragraph should be its own story. Speaking it into existence Years before Black Bodies ( 2020) caught the attention of Ava Duvernay and When Morning Comes was announced as part of TIFF 2022, I sat in Sandbox Studios surrounded by 60 or so other people for a private viewing of Kelly Fyffe- Marshall’s first short Haven ( 2017). For four minutes, we collectively held our breath as the intimate bond between a mother and daughter revealed itself. When the lights came up, the air was still and heavy with a mixture of emotions. After a quiet, reflective moment, producer Tamar Bird and Fyffe- Marshall shared their motivations and plans for the future. It’s a moment cemented in my memory bank. At the time, the goals felt astronomical in my small bubble. Today, those plans are twinkling moments in the past, and in their place is a present- day that far exceeds what I once thought was impossible. I’ve watched peers and mentors alike make decisions, often without a guarantee they’ll be successful. I first heard Douglas talk with Sisterhood Media, a Black women- owned distribution platform from Samah Ali, as part of their On The Couch series. Her intention and words cut through the static that buzzed around my head. It’s more than clear that Douglas is in the role meant for her; she has repeatedly shown it. BIPOC TV and Film has constantly asked tough questions while hearing community feedback and creating career- tipping programming. Years ago, after I left POV Film as a participant, I was excited to expand my world. Helplessness quickly replaced excitement as I realized that most of the industry felt out of reach. It wasn’t until I shared space with other young filmmakers like me, during a Black Women Film! Canada writing program, that excitement took hold again. “Programs like Black Women Film! Canada have made it possible for people to get visibility, to be seen, to do all the things,” says Fyffe- Marshall, an industry veteran of over 15 years who has been a participant in BWFC programs. Nothing rings truer, having personally benefited from these spaces. Programs run by organizations like Alison Duke and Ngardy Conteh George’s OYA Black Arts Coalition and FrancesAnne Solomon’s Caribbeantales’ Incubator live at the heart of our creative community – a community that fosters genuine support for one another in many ways, from acknowledging each other’s work to sharing opportunities. Stories developed by Lea Marin, the director of development at CBC, helped us realize that this moment was possible. Times have been unprecedented for two years and we are truly living in a very thick chapter of history. “We all can choose, and you can choose which side of history you want to be on,” says Bird. Black women firmly sit in the driver’s seat of the industry’s transformation and we, the passengers, continue to benefit from the journey. We have the massive opportunity to provide the fuel. Next time you see crisp, squareshaped graphics, a chance to celebrate or a call to action, take in the moment; tag a friend, give grace and flowers to the stewards of the Canadian film and TV industry. There’s a scene in Reservation Dogs season two where Elora Danan – the wounded but tough teen played by Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs – is on the run alongside Elva Guerra’s Jackie from hillbillies with shotguns. The two characters are stranded and desperate after a string of unfortunate events left them in the middle of the country without a dollar or water. They try to steal a car from a farm, which is how they end up with the hillbillies on their tail. The sequence plays out at the beginning of episode two and comes from an old feature idea about runaways from series creator Sterlin Harjo. It has a Coen Brothers- ish strain of absurd dark comedy. But it also recalls a real- life tragedy. Remember that Colten Boushie was killed in similar circumstances: a flat tire and a trespass led to a death sentence by a white farmer that was justified by an all- white jury in Saskatchewan. “I don’t know that we were actively making a comment on Colten Boushie, his experience and his family’s loss,” says Jacobs, on a Zoom call from Atlanta. “But it’s definitely something that hits close to home. And it is something that we can all relate to: being little shit kids who are at the end of their rope and are desperately trying to reach out to get away and being met with people like that.” There are other kinds of people in the episode too, like a charitable but also annoying Christian woman who doesn’t rush to call the police or take justice into her own hands when Elora Danan and Jackie tax her truck. The episode’s journey, which begins with those shotgun- wielding hillbillies threatening to kill, ends on a moving note of community support. I won’t reveal who, but characters from the first season who could have landed the Rez Dogs in jail for a similar trespass instead choose to uplift these kids while keeping them out of the carceral system. When I bring that up, Jacobs think back on her time before acting, being with her community in Kahnawà: ke and also working at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. “There is an understanding that calling the police is a last resort because of its implications of what it means for our community members.” Jacobs is speaking to NOW from Atlanta, where she’s shooting the new Marvel series Echo. She’s “sworn to secrecy” when it comes to that series, but does share that it’s giving her the opportunity to reunite with Navajo writer and filmmaker Sydney Freeland, who she already worked with on Indigenous- led series Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs. “This is our third project back- to- back.” Jacobs has also graduated to the writers room on Reservation Dogs. She now has a hand in shaping the comedy series about teens from Muscogee Creek Nation who are grappling with intergenerational trauma and the very recent suicide of a close friend, but find healing in tradition, community and a hearty laugh. “Even though it’s a comedy, there is room for all genres in it because that’s how our communities operate,” says Jacobs. “We weave between comedy and tragedy or adventure with some teasing jokes thrown in.” I was provided with the first four episodes from season two – the last of which, co- written by Jacobs and Harjo and helmed by Night Raiders director Danis Goulet – hit particularly hard, in a beautiful way. The episode reminds me of Steve Mcqueen’s Lovers Rock, where there barely seems to be a plot and yet there’s so much to chew on. Both Lovers Rock and this particular episode of Reservation Dogs are set at community gatherings. There are subtle unspoken tensions and sentiments observed in glances and gestures along with a meaningful emotional journey that can reflect the community’s struggle and generational trauma. And it all happens under the surface. In Lovers Rock, the gathering is a reggae house party. In Reservation Dogs, it’s a funeral. Jacobs says she was thrilled to show us how the latter doesn’t have to be a dour ceremony. “When somebody’s going at their time, when it’s time for them to make their journey, it’s honestly some of the best times,” says Jacobs, noticing the huge difference between funerals within Indigenous communities and outside of them. “There will be family members and community members around at all hours. It’s a really beautiful hands- on experience for us. “I was so passionate about that when we were in the writers’ room, getting a chance to show that in our series. Sterlin ended up giving me the episode to co- write with him. Danis Goulet has just done such an incredible job, how much care she put into its direction and into honouring the words that we wrote on the page. It was such a respectful process between the both of us as creatives on this. I’m just so grateful for her.” Bringing Goulet into the Rez Dogs fold feels like a full- circle moment. The Cree and Métis Night Raiders director attended Sundance with series creators Harjo and Taika Waititi in the early 2000s, when they were all pushing to get Indigenous voices out. She also programmed their work during her tenure as executive director at imaginenative. They were part of a community that continue to support each other ( Waititi is executive producer on Night Raiders). It’s just perfect then that the episode she directs in collaboration with them on Reservation Dogs is about a community gathering – featuring pretty much every character on the show including newcomers like Nathan Apodaca ( aka Tiktok sensation @ doggface208). Reservation Dogs has always felt like a show that is made for and by a community that shows up for each other. Another project Jacobs is a part of has a similar feel: This Place. The film, which Jacobs calls a “five- year labour of love,” was part of the inaugural Telefilm Talent To Watch program and is finally having its world premiere at TIFF in September. It’s a queer romance starring Jacobs as a Mohawk woman searching for her estranged Iranian father, and Priya Guns as a Tamil- Canadian whose refugee father falls ill. This Place is directed by Tamil- Canadian V. T. Nayani, but feels like a gathering of ideas about identity, colonialism and shared traumas that come from its cabal of co- writers ( Nayani, Jacobs and Golshan Abdmoulaie) and their communities. “Both This Place and Reservation Dogs were such collaborative efforts and were very much about communities coming together,” says Jacobs. “On Reservation Dogs, it’s all Indigenous writers from different corners of Turtle Island. For This Place, it was more a cross- collaboration and communion between different cultures, that being those of refugees – the Tamil and Iranian communities – and Kanien’kehá: ka Mohawk communities. “It’s a film that could only ever take place in a city like Toronto.”