Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A still from Black Life: Untold Stories.CBC GEM

  • Black Life: Untold Stories
  • Showrunner and Executive Producer: Leslie Norville and Executive Producer: Miranda de Pencier
  • First four episodes air on CBC Gem Oct. 18, next four Oct. 25. Airs weekly on CBC TV at 9 p.m. beginning Oct. 25.

In 1989, the Royal Ontario Museum corralled tribal masks and statues for an exhibit called Into the Heart of Africa. No Black curators were involved in a showcase steeped in exoticism, which purported to tell Black ancestors’ stories, while greeting attendees, including schoolchildren, with a large painting of a European soldier impaling a Zulu warrior. The violent image was meant as a mea culpa, acknowledging that the artifacts on display were acquired through colonialism. The museum issued an official apology 27 years later.

In its fifth episode, the new CBC docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories covers the museum’s epic failure, from its curation to the way the ROM’s brass refused to engage in conversation with protesters at the time. The episode’s director Karen Chapman also frames that incident as just one instance in a long history of Canadian institutions creating narratives about the Black community without Black voices. Chapman’s episode then goes on to tout the long-ignored Black voices who fought for the space to reclaim their narratives, including authors like Austin Clarke and Dionne Brand, and filmmakers like Jennifer Hodge de Silva (Home Feeling) and Clement Virgo (Rude).

The episode, and Leslie Norville’s eight-part series as a whole, is also a reclamation. Black Life is expansive and exhaustive, a thorough retelling of Black-Canadian history and a forceful and necessary corrective to centuries of erasure and misrepresentations. Norville corralled writers, activists and filmmakers from across the country – Chapman, Michèle Stephenson, Alicia K. Harris, Thyrone Tommy – who curate heritage moments across episodes that deal with music, activism, sports and more. The series captures the multitudes of being Black in Canada in a way that is ambitious and unimpeachable in its aims. But, given its format, it can occasionally feel like more civic duty than artistry.

Audiences will be satisfied just knowing a series like Black Life exists, but coaxing them to watch something that tends to be more informative than compelling is another matter. It’s not like the creators aren’t aware of the challenge. It’s practically built into the narrative, along with an awareness of Canada’s inferiority complex.

Talking heads regularly explain why these Black-Canadian stories – from the histories of the first enslaved people to arrive in New France, to the rap scene that paved the way for Drake – are just as valid and worthy of your attention as those from south of the border. It’s as if Black-Canadian storytellers constantly feel the need to justify their existence, an impulse nurtured by Canadian TV networks, including the CBC, which ignored these voices for so long. To repurpose an analogy that director Kelly Fyfe-Marshall uses in the fifth episode, our gatekeepers ignore “Tyrone from Toronto” because they’ve been too afraid that Black stories would alienate “Rob from Saskatchewan.”

Rob is probably a hip-hop head in the Prairies who in a post-2020 world can be counted on to know the stories of Malcolm X, if not Fred Hampton and Kwame Ture. He has the bandwidth to learn how DJ Ron Nelson shepherded a local hip hop scene on a community radio show, how the Jamaican inflections in Michie Mee’s rhymes reverberate in Drake’s music and the way the RCMP spied on Black activists and used entrapment to disrupt movements and put young men in prison. Or maybe Rob is just a Montrealer interested in how waves of Haitian immigration shaped his local culture. The beauty of Black Life’s expansive thematic breakdown is that there’s no commitment to seeing every episode and audiences can just cherry-pick subjects they choose to be experts in.

The series begins with a montage that verges on parodic: idyllic views of mountainscapes, Prairies and white people fishing or harvesting maple syrup, meanwhile the voices of old prime ministers champion the country’s diversity and racial harmony. It’s a savvy cold open, poking fun at how Canada can erase people of colour and deny racism in the same breath.

From there Black Life tears the blinds down. Some of the stories are hard to hear, like the traumatic account of Marie-Josèphe Angélique, the runaway enslaved woman who was tortured and then executed for allegedly setting fire to her captor’s home. Others are uplifting, like the romance between Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who escaped slavery in the United States and prompted Upper Canada to draft refugee policies to protect them from extradition.

The Blackburns, like a few other narratives in Black Life, deserve their own movie. Theirs is just one of the stories that had me thinking about Steve McQueen’s fiery and monumental anthology series Small Axe. The BBC limited series capturing the Black experience in Britain is similar in concept to the CBC series. But while Black Life covers all the ground it can, Small Axe dug down on five specific stories of resistance, struggle and community love, each becoming a potent and transcendent feature-length episode that held space for McQueen’s artistry and authorship. I wonder if we could ever have something similar.

Then again, making Black Life a docuseries is such a Canadian way of doing things. Our national cinema, as TIFF chief executive Cameron Bailey points out in that fifth episode, was built on docs produced at the NFB. That’s where the first Black filmmakers Jennifer Hodge de Silva and Sylvia Hamilton told their stories.

Sylvia Hamilton appears in Chapman’s episode, speaking about her and Claire Prieto’s 1989 documentary short Black Mother Black Daughter, which, like this series, brought generations of Black women into conversation. It’s a powerful moment capturing the spirit of this series, where a new generation lets those who fought for space before them know they’ve been heard.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Follow related authors and topics

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

Interact with The Globe