Recently someone asked me why most people don’t know who our Canadian Black, Indigenous, people of colour filmmakers are. In replying to them, I found my answer expanding into some age-old issues.
Growing up as a Black person, it was clear how devalued my life was to the rest of the world. Today, little has changed. People do not know who Black, Indigenous, people of colour are in general because we have been systematically erased from history for hundreds of years – a practice that continues.
We are invisible because history is taught with serious omissions. We are taught “Robert Peary discovered the North Pole,” even though an African American, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit men, Ootah, Seeglo, Egingwah, and Ooqueah, took him there; that “Sir Edmund Percival Hillary was the first man to climb Mount Everest,” even though Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay helped get him there; and my favourite, “Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica and America.” How can you say you discovered land that had people living on it already? But those people were not white so they were disregarded as important to the story, to history.
It’s important for us to remember a time when Black players weren’t allowed on white athletic teams, and when they finally were, it certainly upset a lot of people to see them dominating the sport. It wasn’t that long ago that radio stations refused to play music by Black people, but today Black musicians dominate many genres. Canada is still debating whether to have a national Emancipation Day. How is that possible? Even South Africa, with its history of apartheid, has an annual Day of Reconciliation.
So one of the reasons we don’t know who our racially diverse talent is in Canada is that we have been taught they don’t exist. The media has done an amazing job erasing the true value of racially diverse individuals. Instead, actors such as Rock Hudson and Mickey Rooney had their faces painted to represent other ethnicities.
In 1990, when the daytime drama The Young and The Restless hired me and brought on four other Black actors, the studio received a deluge of mail from angry racists threatening to stop watching the show because of it. For the first few years, the FBI tracked our fan mail. But I have to add that the show picked up thousands more new watchers that tuned in because we were Black. There is definitely a hunger for diverse audiences to see themselves reflected.
When I created Reelworld Film Festival in 2000 with a mandate to help and support Black, Indigenous and people of colour in the screen industry, I received numerous emails denouncing me as a racist. I still get those messages today. Most of the world is comfortable seeing only white faces on screen, yet the minute an effort is made to correct that, we are labelled racist.
From my perspective, the Canadian industry doesn’t know who we are because deep down they don’t believe the audience wants us there, and they don’t want to upset the apple cart. Their version of inclusion is to sprinkle just enough diversity to keep the masses happy, but they are not willing to make the changes that could put them at a disadvantage. Until the film Black Panther, the common view in Hollywood was that a movie with a Black cast could never pull big international numbers. And yet that film broke box office records around the world.
Let’s also take a moment and reflect on a word I detest: “BIPOC.” My reason is this: It’s too easy. It’s so nice and simple to wrap up all the racial issues we still don’t want to deal with by using an acronym that once again pushes to make us invisible. People are uncomfortable saying Black, saying Indigenous, saying people of colour – these are words that remind them of our history. BIPOC is fun and cute and has no history attached to it. But I don’t want things to be easy or cute. I want to remind myself every day of the sacrifices others made before me, and I want to remember clearly where the journey still needs to go.
Reelworld Film Festival and other similar initiatives in Canada are born out of a desire to change the status quo. One persistent, insidious narrative in the screen industry is that the reason Black, Indigenous or people of colour aren’t hired by producers is because that talent doesn’t exist. Our new initiative, AccessReelworld.ca, is a national recruiting platform for creatives who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour. It was created out of a desire to eliminate the excuse that the industry doesn’t know where the talent is to hire them.
Now you know where they are.
Tonya Williams is the founder of the Reelworld Film Festival, whose 2020 edition ends Oct. 19 (reelworld.ca)