Skip to main content

Black teens, cops, guns: From the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by a neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, to the shooting death of Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo., last year, to last weekend's viral video of a white Texas cop drawing his gun on black teens at a pool party, the issue of youth and race has dominated media attention in the second term of Barack Obama's presidency.

In 2012, in the wake of the Martin killing, the National Film Board started looking into exploring race and youth in Canada. Lea Marin, a producer with Toronto's Ontario Studio, began trying "to find our place in the conversation." What that led to is an upcoming NFB documentary, Unarmed Verses, which has just finished shooting in Toronto, and brings in those new voices while calming down the shouting.

The filmmaker is Charles Officer, raised in Toronto, director of the 2008 feature film Nurse.Fighter.Boy (which earned 10 Genie nominations), and the 2010 film Mighty Jerome, the winner of a 2012 Northwest Regional Emmy Award. Officer, born to a British father and a Jamaican mother, grew up in Toronto and was determined to find a different angle on the conversation about youth and race. We talked at a coffee shop, next door to the NFB's Toronto offices, where Officer laid out his alternative, gentle approach to the inflammatory issue.

"Coming right off the Trayvon Martin verdict, there were all these articles about Racism 2.0 [a term coined by author Tim Wise to refer to the denial of ongoing institutional racism]. But racism doesn't have numbers attached to it. It's been going on a long, long time, no matter how you try to intellectualize it. We didn't want to impose an agenda, to have experts doing the talking. We wanted to focus on the street, to set up the dialogue, to decide the place we were going to work with and who we were going to work with, and then let their voices carry it, and we came up with the idea of Unarmed Verses. There's verses in the Bible, in song, in spoken word, and how these kids could arm themselves with their voices."

He began with a non-profit organization called Art Starts, started by a group of artists in the early nineties, that works in several Toronto neighbourhoods, using arts instruction to strengthen communities that have few public resources. One of those communities is Villaways, a small public housing complex of 121 rental units in North York, near Sheppard Avenue and Leslie Street, which consists of four streets lined with 1970s townhouses, and chain-link fences opening onto communal areas. The population is largely black, low-income and isolated from the big city south of Highway 401. The youth hub is the "rec centre," a townhouse like the rest at 20 Adra Villaway, where Art Starts holds educational programs two days a week.

The anxiety that all teenagers feel about their future is exacerbated at Villaways. The townhouses are deteriorating – there are problems with mould and leaky basements – and within the next four years, the entire complex is going to be razed for a massive revitalization project, with a combination of new rental houses and condos. The residents will be moved with the option of returning to better homes when the project is finished, but by then some of them will be adults and will have moved on with their lives. Under Art Starts' program director, Carleen Robinson, the kids are involved in a variety of arts programs, but one of particular immediacy is called Up & Rooted, which focuses on the imminent destruction, and eventual rebuilding, of their home. Last year, the youth at the centre created a diorama of the community they'd like to live in, which was on display at Toronto's City Hall last January.

"My first impressions of the place were crazy," Officer says. "These kids were their own supervisors, going literally hours without adults being around. You see an eight-year-old bringing a four-year-old to the centre. But it kind of works. It's chaotic but pretty beautiful."

It's easy to see why kids find an easy rapport with Officer. A sometimes actor, former ad agency creative director and pro hockey player in England, he's one of those affectionate, charismatic characters everyone likes. He also made sure he took the time to build his subjects, getting to know the kids and families for a year before he began shooting. He started off conducting simple interviews with his iPhone, and then encouraged the kids to ask each other questions.

In the aftermath of the Martin shooting, he initially thought his documentary would focus on boys, but instead it has been the girls that most caught his attention – as leaders, and as guardians of the other children. The question about the relationship between police and black youth "was part of the conversation for about a minute. It's not good, but a lot of things aren't good."

What was good was watching how many of the kids flourished with the chance to express themselves. He mentions one 12-year-old girl who "became the light for me. She starts out as this quiet little kid with all this stuff in her head with this quiet little voice, and then she's writing her own song. She's literally finding her voice."

Both Officer and Marin have just come to the end of the shoot, which started last February, and they're ready for the editing stage. Officer has a very Canadian opening: a group of kids playing in the snow in sub-zero temperatures in the ravine next to the housing community. Beyond that, he promises that the film will be "very visual" and observational, but also structured to follow the mandate he and Marin came up with – to listen to, and illustrate, what the kids are saying.

"There's a sense among these kids that nobody outside really cares about them, that they're invisible," says Marin. "And apart from whatever the film means to a wider audience, it's a chance for them to recognize themselves." None of this conversation has the fist-waving urgency of a Sunday news show or talk-radio yelling match. I ask Officer if he were to give an elevator pitch to the film, how would it go?

"That it's a film about truthful voices that are coming out of the chaos around them," he says. "In the community they come from, it's exhausting and hard to think straight. They're trying very hard to be heard through the nonsense."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe