Arts·Point of View

Why it matters who tells Black stories onscreen

Barry Avrich's controversial Canadian Screen Awards speech wasn't surprising — the film industry has a long history of co-opting Black voices without supporting Black talent.

The Canadian film industry has a long history of co-opting Black voices without supporting Black talent

Still from the documentary Oscar Peterson: Black + White. (Bell Media)

Barry Avrich took to the stage of the 2022 Canadian Screen Awards last week and decided to speak on who should tell Black stories in Canada. While accepting an award for Best Direction, Documentary Program for Oscar Peterson: Black + White, the director said: "There are so many Black stories in Canada that need to be told. It doesn't matter who tells them [emphasis mine], we just need to tell them."

Filmmakers, critics, and organizations responded to Avrich's remark with disapproval. Many released statements, including the Canada Media Fund, Black Screen Office (BSO), Reelworld Screen Institute, and the Canadian Academy, who administer the CSAs. "We are deeply disturbed that [Barry Avrich] would use this as a platform to make such a self-serving point in his acceptance speech," said Jennifer Holness, filmmaker and chair of the BSO's board of directors in the organization's statement. "Until recently, we Black filmmakers have faced massive systemic and structural bias that allowed very few of us to make work, never mind to obtain the access and craftsmanship [Avrich has] gotten over [his] career. Opportunities are finally opening up for us to tell our stories, and we must be given the support and funding to do this work." 

Céline Peterson, the daughter of the late jazz legend, also released a comment the following Friday about Avrich's speech and included an open letter signed by members of Canadian film organizations. She wrote: "While I am unsurprised by the comments made at the Canadian Screen Awards, what brings me comfort is the response they have received."

Avrich has since issued an apology, telling CBC News: "I am truly sorry I misspoke, causing my words to be misinterpreted as anything but support for Black creatives telling their stories.... I am committed to continuing to be a strong supporter of redressing the imbalance that has historically existed and continues to be a challenge for Black and other traditionally underrepresented creators."

This is not the first time Avrich has made troubling statements about diversity onscreen. In 2015, when the Oscars sparked protests due to an all-white nominee list, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences struggled to respond to demands for diversity. The ensuing #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, created by April Reign, referenced the deep-seated racial erasure of the awards show. A year later, Avrich referred to this friction while discussing his approach as the show producer of the 2016 Canadian Screen Awards in the Globe and Mail: "Yeah, the diversity issue. We talked about this at length in the last meeting. I think the Oscars overplayed it."

Avrich, who worked with four white male writers on the show that year, continued: "I think we've proven, not only with our presenters but just the overall feel and complexion of the show, that we're the more diverse show that's happening."

Director Barry Avrich at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival TIFF Tribute Gala. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

There has been a long tradition of Black filmmaking here in Canada. Claire Prieto, Roger McTair, Jennifer Hodge de Silva, Clement Virgo, Selwyn Jacob, Sylvia Hamilton, Charles Officer, and so many more have committed their careers to documenting the narratives of Black diasporas in Canada. But systemic barriers, gate-keeping, and a lack of financial support for their stories in the industry is also part of this legacy, too. Black creators in film and TV have traditionally been overlooked — until recently. In response to a wave of global anti-racism protests in recent years and an uptick in conversations about race, funding for Black storytelling has started to expand.

Avrich's contributions as a documentarian are vast. Over a span of nearly 30 years, he has worked on a range of documentaries, with many focused on notable figures in entertainment and the arts, such as Guilty Pleasure: The Extraordinary World of Dominick Dunne (2002), The Last Mogul: The Life and Times of Lew Wasserman (2005) and Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World (2017). Some might call him revered. His direction in Oscar Peterson: Black + White (2021) earned him his fourth CSA. Yet, Peterson is the first Black artist Avrich has made the main subject of his films. Speaking to The Canadian Press, he expressed his interest in producing more work on Black musicians, including the late blues artist Salome Bey. I can't help but wonder: at a time when more money is being invested in Black cultural expressions, what is Avrich's sudden apparent interest in telling accounts outside of the rhythm of his usual work? 

In Oscar Peterson: Black + White, Avrich lightly addressed systemic racism as a roadblock for Peterson and jazz artists, but did so through an American lens. This is an age-old Canadian method to steer away from grappling with racism here. Throughout the documentary, he uses archival footage and interviews that show Peterson's experiences with racism in the U.S., all while overlooking his early experiences with discrimination in a segregated Montreal. The unfortunate outcome of this is a redirection from the real histories embedded in this place we live. It effaces the real social, political, and economic barriers jazz artists had to overcome in Canada. It was this gap in Avrich's documentary that compelled me to write about the Peterson family and Little Burgundy community after watching the film.

Oscar Peterson playing piano with his sister Daisy Peterson Sweeney. (Library and Archives Canada)

When a director, like Avrich, lacks the scope to understand the experiences and histories that shaped Peterson's life in Canada, he is incapable of fully honouring his story. His framing of the late jazz legend's life, then, becomes fragmented. In an interview with Jazz FM, Avrich mentioned, "Everybody looks for the drama and the drugs and the scandal, and I think that's why his life gets a little overlooked." This was the moment I suspected Avrich had a lack of understanding of the structural barriers that shape the martyrs of Black art. 

Artists devoted to the stories they produce will ask themselves: am I able to fulfil the duty of relaying this narrative? Is this story mine to tell? It seems Avrich considered these questions and determined he did not need to pass the baton. In an industry that has a long history of co-opting Black chronicles and fictions while disposing of Black talent and voices, Avrich is not new. He is ordinary.

Black stories do not belong to everyone, despite what Avrich says, especially as the gates are finally opening up. These stories remain reserved for those committed to these narratives and communities.- Huda Hassan

Black stories do not belong to everyone, despite what Avrich says, especially as the gates are finally opening up. These stories remain reserved for those committed to these narratives and communities — before, after, and regardless of whether they are commercialized for mass audiences. When we fail to attend to this ethic in storytelling, we fail the story. To Avrich, I ask: are you contributing to this moment of Black renascence, or are you diverting it?

In a statement released last Friday, Yasmine Mathurin — who was nominated for three CSAs for her documentary One of Ours (2021) — said she was the only Black filmmaker present when Avrich made his comments at the CSA virtual ceremony. She then succinctly said what needed to be said about the contentious moment: "My perspective as a Black person shapes how I tell stories, especially stories about Black people. It matters. Objectivity is a myth."


Huda Hassan is a journalist and cultural critic. Her writing, reviews, and criticism appears in many places, including Pitchfork, BuzzFeed, and Quill & Quire. She teaches and writes about Black feminist literature and cultural studies in Toronto.

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