One movie can't end racism in Canada — but 'The Skin We're In' will fuel the fight
Reflections on the new documentary from Desmond Cole and Charles Officer
Last week, I moderated a panel at the TIFF Next Wave festival featuring filmmaker Charles Officer and journalist Desmond Cole. They discussed their upcoming documentary The Skin We're In, which premieres March 9 on CBC Docs. The film follows Cole's travels through Canada and parts of the United States while researching his new book — and reveals the systemic racism that exists in Canada.
During the conversation, Officer dubbed Cole a James Baldwin for this generation — and that title inevitably comes with a heavy crown.
Like Baldwin, Cole's writing and public appearances have positioned him as a public intellectual. His words are an affirmation of the realities and experiences of black people, and he shares these experiences with an intelligence that can only come with deep reflection and consideration. Through his work, he puts an unwanted mirror to those who benefit from the privilege of power.
Cole was the top winner at the 2016 National Magazine Awards for his Toronto Life story "The Skin I'm In." The article was a work of personal journalism, a story about what it's like to experience racial profiling by the police as a black man in Canada.
For the film version of The Skin We're In, the perspective shifts — but the intimacy of Cole's work is not lost. His journalism is marked by his unapologetic connection to many of his subjects, which is captured poignantly throughout the film.
"There isn't a lot of separation for me," Cole said during the panel. "I guess in some ways that can be considered unhealthy sometimes. It can be considered even to be unprofessional by some people. But I can't really put any distance between myself and the work that I'm doing." He confessed that the personal nature of the doc has made him apprehensive about watching it. (At the time of the panel, he still hadn't seen the film.)
One of the first scenes of The Skin We're In features Cole in an on-air interview for Global News. Alongside him is a columnist from the Toronto Sun, and throughout the segment, this guest accuses Cole of holding "all the power," claiming he's someone that the Toronto Police Services and the mayor fear. After the interview concludes, the camera remains on Cole's face, capturing an expression of weariness and incredulity.
During the panel, Cole said something that made me remember that moment:
"I feel that something that's really important to understand about this struggle is that what's constantly happening is we are being told as black people that we're the cause of the violence, that we're the cause of the suffering, that we're the cause of the fear."
From its opening shot, the film is a challenge to this persistent fiction. It opens with dramatic close-ups on black skin, a series of moving photographs depicting the grace of black bodies splashed with bold and beautiful colours of light.
There are moments of joy, too. In one scene, Cole gets a haircut at Toronto's Onyx Barbershop. It's an opportunity for self-care, and the barber pays meticulous attention to his hair — while expressing just how proud he is of Cole's work.
At a book signing with Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke, the two writers greet each other enthusiastically, like two soldiers on furlough. And during a journey to Nova Scotia, Cole explores his family ties to the land. As he walks through Birchtown, he basks in the realization that he may be taking the same steps as his ancestors. These moments remind us that there is joy and healing in the midst of struggle.
However, there are also moments that illustrate the deep well of suffering that exists for many black people in this country.
We are being told as black people that we're the cause of the violence, that we're the cause of the suffering, that we're the cause of the fear.- Desmond Cole, journalist
"There's an interview in the movie that I know is gonna be really tough for me to watch," Cole said during the panel. It's an interview with Rose Loku, the sister of Andrew Loku — a man who was killed by the Toronto Police Services.
"I feel it's very important for her to be able to tell her story, but man, that was a really difficult interview. And we cried a lot. We're out here grieving with our family. That's part of what we're doing even as we create this work. We're grieving because these things are hurting us."
During the panel, we watched scenes that have been cut from the film, and there was a stillness in the room as these images appeared on screen. I saw young people move forward in their seats, eager to hear the analysis of the panelists.
There is a hunger for the kind of knowledge and history that Cole is uncovering, and that hunger gets fed when it is translated through Officer's perceptive filmmaking. I asked Officer who his ideal audience is; in response, he discussed the realistic limits of this 44-minute movie, and quickly put aside the idea that it could change peoples' minds about racism.
Preaching to the choir is often described as useless, but Officer challenged this notion. "The choir needs to be looked after too," he said. "They need to be really supported. And they need to be fuelled with energy to keep singing. And they can't be forgotten."
Watch our complete conversation.
The Skin We're In airs on CBC Television Thursday, March 9 at 9 p.m. Learn more from CBC Docs.