Arts·Q&A

Our Dance of Revolution: This new film builds a timeline of Black queer activism in Toronto

And that's one monumental task. Amanda Parris talks with director Phillip Pike about his ambitious documentary.

And that's one monumental task. Amanda Parris talks with director Phillip Pike about his ambitious documentary

Still from Our Dance of Revolution. (Courtesy of Roaring River Films)

In recent years, I've become an evangelist of sorts. Not for any religion, but I've become dedicated to underlining the critical importance of documenting stories that so often get left out. I've written articles, delivered keynotes and facilitated workshops, all illustrating the dangers that occur when our stories are forgotten.

So my little evangelical heart is currently dancing with joy because of a new film called Our Dance of Revolution. The documentary builds a timeline of Black queer activism in Toronto — and it is a monumental task. The film (which screens at Toronto's Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema June 9) is ambitious in its scope, but its attempt to craft an intergenerational dialogue creates moments of deeply beautiful intimacy.

Our Dance of Revolution begins in the '80s at 101 Dewson Street. During that decade, writer/activist Makeda Silvera and her partner at the time turned the house into a collective residence for queer folks. Against the backdrop of the feminist movement, protests against police violence, the bathhouse raids and the rise of the AIDS epidemic, this collective of mostly queer women organized, worked, lived, loved and partied together. It became the birthplace for groups such as Lesbians of Colour (LOC) and Zami (the first Canadian group for Black Caribbean queer people).

The house should have already been the subject of countless academic essays, the inspiration for novels, the setting for rom-coms and the launchpad for political thrillers — but at least now it has been archived through the words and memories of those who lived there. The film tells the stories of groups such as the Black Women's Collective (a group that published Our Lives, a Black women's newspaper), Black CAP (the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention), Blockorama, Sunset Service and Black Lives Matter Toronto.

There are also special highlights on the late activist Sherona Hall, legendary drag queen Michelle Ross and the still prolific Mykel Hall a.k.a. DJ Black Cat. Although it covers a lot of ground, there are inevitably movements, moments and people that could not be included in the final cut.  

Last week, I spoke with human rights lawyer turned director Phillip Pike over the phone about the process of making this film, determining who and what would be included and how it felt screening this labour of love for the first time at the 2019 Hot Docs Festival.  

The Black Women's Collective. Still from Our Dance of Revolution. (Courtesy of Roaring River Films)

Amanda Parris: Why did you want to make this doc?

Phillip Pike: This a compelling story. I mean, that's the bottom line. I thought this was a wonderful story and one that had not been told — at least not in any sort of comprehensive way, and especially in film. And I guess part of why I felt it was compelling was because it's the story that I also lived personally.

I came to this country in the '70s with my parents. You know, it's a typical sort of immigrant story. For those first years of being here, with the exception of my family and church, my social circles were all folks of European descent. It kind of came to a point in my life where I felt this need to connect, to kind of find my tribe — be affirmed in a certain way. I stepped into community in the early '90s, in 1993, when I joined the board of Black CAP. So I experienced that sense of transformation, that sense of affirmation.

The second reason is I just think that we need to do a better job of being guardians of our history, especially as some of these folks start to leave us and we lose that history.

How did you decide where to begin?

Yeah, that was hard. Dewson House was the first intentional, purposeful coming together of the community in a political taking-up-space kind of way. My understanding is that prior to that, it really was very much an underground kind of thing. You know, there was the Vaseline Tower and The Manatee where the drag queens, the Black drag queens, would have parties on the weekend. I did explore before Dewson Street times, but there weren't a lot of folks who had a clear narrative about that, so it was difficult to include that in the film. But I made a decision that Dewson House would be a nice starting point of the story because it is that first formal coming together. Also, Makeda Silvera's personal story of coming to Canada in 1967, and then joining the Black political mainstream community and then coming out in the early '80s, was a nice lead-in to it. It just seemed like Dewson House was the logical place to start.

Filmmaker Phillip Pike. (Henderson Marshall)

Tell me about your research process.

I started in the summer of 2015 and I just spoke to anybody that I could. I had a list but I tried to speak to as many folks as possible, especially the younger generation who I was less familiar with because they came into community after I was active. Conservatively, I would say I've interviewed at least 50 people off camera ranging from Makeda Silvera right up to (BLMTO co-founder) Rodney Diverlus and everybody in between, generationally speaking. Those were 45 to 90 minute to two hour sit-down chats. That really gave me a good sense of the narrative and the important groups and movements.

There are folks that I wasn't aware of. Sunset Service I wasn't that familiar with; The House of Monroe I wasn't that familiar with because they were later generations. Then it was time to dig into the archives. I spent countless hours at the ArQuives going through huge dusty boxes, pulling out photographs, posters, flyers, scanning all of that. So it was a lot of institutional and personal research.

What was it like to hear all of these stories?

It was wonderful. A lot of these folks I knew in some way, shape or form because we had been involved in community work in some way together or just socially knew each other. But to really sit down and hear the depth and the breadth of what had been created before I stepped in in 1993, it just increased my admiration, my love, my respect for them.

These are all folks who are brilliant. They could have gone on and had brilliant careers making lots of money, but they decided to do community work. They decided to invest their time and energy in community. Learning about all of that in a much deeper way through the interview was awe-inspiring.

For some, there was a large cost that came with that activism and community work. Could you talk a little bit about documenting that part of it?

Yeah, absolutely. I think Angela [Robertson] addresses it most directly. There is a cost to pay. So there's the cost of your health, your psyche. Just to deal with the day-to-day experience of racism or marginalization or discrimination is one thing. But to be an activist and be actively fighting against that is a whole other level of work and engagement. It does take a toll. And as Angela said, we've lost people along the way. We've lost people to mental health issues. It was very important to me to show that part of it. It's not always about the triumph — it's also about the hard work of trying to shift paradigms and shift landscapes.

One of the things that stood out was the pivotal role of Black Caribbean lesbian women in the history of Toronto organizing. Was highlighting their role a primary goal from the beginning or something that emerged?

It emerged. I wanted to highlight it because that's what I heard. Everyone was saying it. The women and the men were saying that. It was important to me to highlight the central role that they played in those years. The black and white photographs of them in the '80s signing petitions at Bathurst Station or marching in the street, Sherona Hall and all those folks — it was a critical, critical piece.

Sherona Hall (right) and Makeda Silvera in a still from Our Dance of Revolution. (Courtesy of Roaring River Films)

Why was it important to pay tribute to Sherona Hall specifically?

Sherona Hall was larger than life. She is much loved and appreciated by many communities in Toronto and Canada but especially so by the Black queer communities in Toronto. As Makeda Silvera testifies in the film, Sherona was fierce and fearless. Her work for the most vulnerable among us and those on the margins of the margin is a testament to her humanity. I had the pleasure and good fortune of knowing Sherona and seeing her in action. As someone who was born, and spent my early childhood, in Jamaica, I recognized in Sherona some quintessential qualities that I associate with Jamaica: fierceness, raw energy, truth-telling in an unapologetic way. For me it would have been unthinkable to make a film about the history of Toronto's Black queer community that did not include a tribute to this very special activist and human being.

What was it like sitting in the audience for the premiere at Hot Docs?

It takes a while for that moment to sink in. The energy in the room was wonderful. Almost everybody who was in the film was there. In terms of who was sitting in the audience, it was very much Black queer community, so there was a particular kind of electricity in the air. It was just that feeling of joy. Our stories were unearthed and here they were on this big screen. So for me, it was magical. It was surreal. It was all those things.

Our Dance of Revolution. Directed by Phillip Pike. 102 min. Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m and 5:45 p.m. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto. www.hotdocs.ca

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.