There's never been a show about a Black female Canadian lawyer — until now

Diggstown creator Floyd Kane says just putting that image out in the world "is awesome."

Diggstown creator Floyd Kane says just putting that image out in the world 'is awesome'

Vinessa Antoine stars in Diggstown. The new legal drama premieres Wednesday, March 6 on CBC. (CBC)

It is only now, in the year 2019, that for the first time in Canadian television history, a prime-time drama will feature a Black female lead character. Her name is Marcie Diggs (Vinessa Antoine) and it'll be a historic sight when this corporate lawyer turned legal aid champion is introduced on small screens across Canada Wednesday evening.

There have, of course, been Black female leads on Canadian television before, most notably in comedies such as Da Kink in My Hair, in mini-series including The Book of Negroes and Soul, in sci-fi series like Killjoys or as co-leads in ensembles such as Intelligence and Lord Have Mercy!

But this time is different. Diggstown is a prime-time procedural drama set on the east coast, and its lead character's family has lived in this country for generations. Like Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder) — who helped chart the path of success for prime-time dramas starring Black female leads — Marcie Diggs is a lawyer. But according to Diggstown showrunner and creator Floyd Kane, that's where the similarities between the two characters begin and end. Unlike her flashy counterpart south of the border, Diggs leaves her corporate career and turns to an arena of law that we rarely get to see on the small screen: the legal aid office.

Lots of people in Canada don't know that the largest multi-generational Black community in Canada is in Nova Scotia. It's just about putting those visuals up to the world.- Floyd Kane,

A former lawyer himself, Kane assembled a writing room filled with women to tell the stories of Marcie Diggs. Interested in capturing the way that class and privilege play out in the justice system, Kane was determined to root her journey outside of the big cities that normally serve as the backdrop for legal dramas like Suits and The Good Wife.

When we meet Marcie Diggs, she has returned to her home in North Preston, a real-life historic Black community in Halifax founded in the 1700s by Black Loyalists, Jamaican Maroons and formerly enslaved Black Americans. It's a fascinating Canadian community, steeped in culture and history, but it's one that we rarely get to see on the small screen.

I spoke with Kane last week about crafting the character of Marcie Diggs, the importance of locating her story in North Preston and his hopes for this new and historic show.

Diggstown producer Amos Adetuyi (left), director Lynne Stopkewich and producer Floyd Kane. (Courtesy of Floyd Kane)

Amanda Parris: What is it about Marcie Diggs that you find most interesting? Why do you think audiences will be captivated by her?

Floyd Kane: I think what I like most about Marcie is that she personifies that saying, "Don't mistake my kindness for weakness." She comes in and she tries to figure out how to make it work for everybody and then when she hits a wall, that's when she goes to work. With Annalise Keating it's just like tough, drunk, very brittle. When we get glimpses of warmth from her, it's when she's with her family or in the early days of the show when she'd be with her husband. With Olivia Pope [on Scandal] there was a lot of snap, snap, snap, this is how it's gonna be. I didn't want Marcie to be either of those things. I wanted her to be like some of the women I knew — the women who I grew up with who are very dynamic and interesting people, who are very friendly and polite and who navigate themselves through the world in that way. But, if you push them, if you've put them in a situation where they need to do what they have to do, they've got no problems.

I'd like to hope that audiences are intrigued by her just by virtue of the fact that we haven't seen a Canadian Black female lawyer who is surfing in the fucking Atlantic Ocean. From my perspective, if we get nothing else right, the idea of just putting that out there into the world, that image, to me is awesome.

Where did that specific inspiration come from? Was that from a specific person that you know?

I'm from Nova Scotia originally. I love Martinique Beach. I have a friend who is an editor who used to go surfing in Martinique Beach in the wintertime. In Black churches the baptism is a very significant thing and because Marcie has a tense relationship with her church, when the show starts, I wanted the water to be her church. This is her place to come and put down her burdens, to feel joy. All of those emotions that you would feel when you go to a Sunday service — that's what she gets from the water.

Marcie (Vinessa Antoine, left) surfs with Rolanda (Karen LeBlanc). (CBC)

When you pitched the idea for Diggstown were you considering the historical significance of it? Were you thinking about the fact that this would be a "first?"

I wasn't thinking about the history of it. I wanted to make a show about North Preston primarily because I think across Canada people have ideas about what that community is like. So I wanted to challenge those ideas visually. I'm a multi-generational Nova Scotian. When I look at Canadian television it's very rare that I see someone who has the background that I have. And so I wanted to create a show where that character has that background. Lots of people in Canada don't know that the largest multi-generational Black community in Canada is in Nova Scotia. It's just about putting those visuals up to the world.

I think this is the first time I've heard hip hop music open a prime-time Canadian drama and it was such an amazing feeling to hear that sound. Can you talk about the musical choices that you make for the show?

Yeah, we wanted all of the music in her world to reflect her. I knew that I wanted to have a hip hop, R&B song that just was really strong and powerful off the top. My conversation with the music supervisor was we want to have jazz, blues, hip hop, gospel — basically every form of Black music. We want to have that represent the show.

The first episode touches on the politics of privilege and the way that it can be leveraged and the way that it can be denied. Can you talk about the how the show tackles these larger topics?

Well, the focus of the show is about how the legal system works for people who don't have any money. Throughout the show we're dealing with this whole issue of wealth and class and privilege and how the system can work differently when you don't have money vs. how it works when you do. Even in terms of perception of legal aid lawyers, there's this whole notion of people perceiving legal aid lawyers as being less than. That in and of itself is an examination of that whole notion of privilege and class and how the system works. Marcie and her colleagues are really good lawyers and they fight really hard for their clients.

Vinessa Antoine in Diggstown. (CBC)

In the series premiere there's this moment where you see all of these Black folks in front of the church for a wedding dressed up and ready to celebrate. It struck me that this was a rare sight in Canadian prime-time drama as well. What was it like to create those moments of Black folks congregating in ways that are not always mired by tragedy?

That was a really powerful day emotionally because we were in North Preston shooting. Half my family is from North Preston so it was a very emotional day. Putting those images out there, it's really important to show the rest of Canada and the world. You may think this community is just this one thing but it's just like every other community across Canada. There is pain; there's joy everywhere. This was a chance to show a moment of joy in this world. That was really important to me. In episode two, we do this blues club thing with her parents because they're musicians and we're in that bar for almost an entire act of the show. I love the fact that we're doing a legal show but we've stopped everything to just have these two actors perform on stage. In all of the episodes we've been able to have an opportunity to do a little something that's left of centre.

This feels like a really exciting moment for Black creatives in American film and television. Do you think that this excitement is true north of the border as well?

I don't know. Time will tell. The analogy I keep using whenever we talk about this situation is Scandal. At the height of its powers, when it was doing 10 million south of the border, it was cancelled by Citytv. So, I don't know. I don't know if it translates. I mean, we'll see. I think the one thing that we have tried to do is make this show as accessible as possible — accessible without denying Marcie's Blackness because I have a lot of problems with shows where you have Black protagonists or support [characters] and you just pretend that they don't have a culture [and] they didn't come from anywhere. That's not the show I wanted to make. So we'll see how people respond to it. I'm hopeful. I'm really hopeful, but I don't know if it translates. You look at the Oscars and you look at the CSAs in terms of nominations. It speaks for itself.

Diggstown premieres on Wednesday, March 6 at 8 p.m. (8:30 NT) on CBC Television.


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 and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.