Perhaps only a black man would have dared to make the riveting CTV movie Doomstown, about the unprecedented gun violence of the past few years on the streets of Toronto. In the current climate, members of any other race would have faced the fury of the politically correct if they had made a film that is so unflinchingly critical of -- and at the same time empathetic with -- Toronto's black Caribbean community.
Created by the up-and-coming director/writer David (Sudz) Sutherland ( Love, Sex and Eating the Bones), Doomstown turns a lens on the drug trade and the sickeningly out-of-control violence in low-income pockets in Canada's largest city. It airs tomorrow night on CTV.
Inspired by the escalating drive-by and gang-related shootings of 2001 to 2003, the 36-year-old Sutherland -- himself of Jamaican descent but born and raised in Scarborough -- pulled together a story based on actual events. He deliberately points a finger at this particular segment of the black population because, he says, it's the root cause of the cycle of violence.
"We don't shy away from the fact that the real problems lay with the Caribbean blacks," says Sutherland, who was inspired to get into filmmaking after writing and performing in a play at his high school. "Growing up, it wasn't guns. We had butterfly knives. It wasn't crazy like this. There are now so many guns on the street, it's ridiculous. We had no access to guns. There were no big pipelines [of guns]coming up [from the U.S.]"
Sutherland adds that, as a filmmaker, he wanted to reflect accurately the Caribbean-Canadian world he grew up in. "I also wanted to be true to the new reality because it's happening all around us."
Doomstown (in the film, the name of a fictitious community-housing project although it's also the real-life nickname of Rexdale's Jamestown) tells the story of Jedi, played by Chris (K. C.) Collins of Close to Home, and Twist, played by Mark Taylor ( Instant Star, Cinderella Man), who are best friends and earn a living selling drugs. Twist is trying to extricate himself from that business. But a confrontation turns tragic and it's up to one of them to right the wrong.
The movie explores choices, the need to crack down on guns and to also break the code of silence that protects the perpetrators because people are too afraid to talk.
On a recent, rainy afternoon, Sutherland, who has two young daughters with actress Jennifer Holness, is at the Elia Middle School, near Jane and Finch, an area where there have been a number of shootings.
Sutherland's here with teacher Mark Caine and one of his stars, Shakura S'Aida (who plays Twist's mother Karen), to run a program he and his wife recently started called Through Our Eyes Film School. On this day, 20 kids -- six boys and 14 girls of black, East Asian and South Asian descent -- are in the library, learning how to use a camera and making minimovies. A camera man, Rhett Morita, is filming them for a documentary Sutherland is making about the program. The director also gave a sneak peek of Doomstown to a gym full of kids at Elia this week.
Once a week, Through Our Eyes runs from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Some of the kids are "at-risk" children. Some act uninterested, and very cool. But they show up every week.
By the end of the program, the kids will present 10 short video pieces that will then premiere at Toronto's Innoversity Creativity Summit in October. Caine says his dream is that these kids participate in festivals around the world.
Sutherland says he's doing this to "give back," and because he was lucky enough to go to a high school that encouraged him to get into theatre in an after-school program.
S'Aida says the kids are "challenging" and "amazing.
"I would describe them as incredibly giving and incredibly insightful and wonderfully smart in ways that we wouldn't even think about," says the 20-year-old actress, who has two daughters.
"I think we underestimate the ability of them because of where we presume they live. But just because you live at Jane and Finch doesn't mean you don't have the intelligence of someone who lives in Rosedale.
"The problem is that a lot of them have never been taught respect at the very base level. That's one of the hugest frustrations for me. I have to say, 'This is how I expect to be treated. How do you expect to be treated? If you tell me, then we can have a good relationship.' But I'm doing this once a week and usually when I come back, I have to re-teach them."
It took several years for Sutherland and Holness to drum up the financial support for this film school. Benefactors include the Toronto Police Services Board, the Ontario Arts Council and non-profit groups Innoversity Creativity Summit and San Romanoway Community Revitalization Association.
The $3.4-million Doomstown was shot in Hamilton and Toronto last fall, just after a spree of summer shootings. Sutherland focused on trying to find out who these young men are who end up dead on the streets. What are their lives like?
"I wanted to make something relevant about what's going on in the streets today," Sutherland says. "I hope audiences recognize that with our kids, it doesn't matter how dark or light you are, they're all dealing with this kind of stuff. There are bullies in the school yard. Bullies at the corner store. This is not happening just in these small little communities. It's happening all over. And the more guns we have on the street, we're going to have more of this."
Last year, a record 52 people were killed by guns in Toronto alone. Next Sunday (Father's Day), the Argos Foundation and the Toronto Police Association are spearheading a Stop the Violence Walk in Toronto.
Sutherland and Holness are also writing a miniseries about the illegal traffic of firearms in Canada.
What are the root causes of these problems? S'Aida says one is that, "We've given up responsibility for our children. We used to grow up in communities where all the parents looked after all of us. And the guy from the variety store wasn't afraid to phone our parents or let our parents know if we had misbehaved."
And although the situation in the United States is worse in terms of lack of gun control, she adds that she thinks Canada is heading toward disaster.
"I feel the situation is more dangerous here," S'Aida adds, "because we're too busy telling everyone that we're not racist, we're not prejudiced and that everyone's equal in this wonderful multicultural land. . . .
"We pretend we treat all these kids the same, but we don't. We pretend all these kids have the same opportunities, they don't. We pretend that a black boy is the same as a white boy, [but]even if they're both dressed in hip-hop clothing, they're not."
Doomstown airs Sunday
at 9 p.m. ET.