Why the film pioneers behind Book of Negroes have always struggled with feeling 'Canadian'

Clement Virgo and Damon D'Oliveira have led the way for Canadian filmmakers — but their shared immigrant experience has never left them.

Clement Virgo and Damon D'Oliveira talk first impressions, breaking barriers and the immigrant experience

Damon D'Oliveira (left) and Clement Virgo attend the Critics' Choice Television Awards, May 2015. (Getty Images)

Rude, the first ever feature film written and directed by a black Canadian, was released in 1995. A boldly experimental and stylistic movie, it explores the stories of three individuals who search for redemption over an Easter weekend, while a mysterious radio host sets the tone by waxing poetic on her philosophies of life.

I watched Rude in university, and quickly realized that it was the first time I had ever seen a Canadian film that centred on the lives and experiences of black people. Not only that, those experiences informed its cinematic aesthetic. In class we read some of the numerous essays and articles that had been written in response to Rude, and that's what first sparked my curiosity about the creative minds behind this landmark film: director/writer/producer Clement Virgo and producer Damon D'Oliveira.

On Wednesday, both men and their company Conquering Lion Pictures were awarded in L.A. by the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) with the CFC Award for Creative Excellence. The honour celebrates their body of work in film and television, which includes the critically acclaimed mini-series The Book of Negroes (2015), as well as the films Poor Boy's Game (2007) and Lie with Me (2005).

D'Oliveira and Virgo both immigrated to Toronto in the '70s (D'Oliveira from Guyana and Virgo from Jamaica), and they met in 1991 at the CFC's inaugural Summer Lab. With support and resources from the CFC, they began working together on the award-winning short film "Save My Lost Nigga Soul" (1993) and then on Rude, which debuted at Cannes and helped put their newly-created production company on the map.

The context of those early years of collaboration was a period in history (from the '80s to the early '90s) that Virgo describes as "a black film renaissance." Hollywood was making movie stars out of black comedians like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, the Sankofa Film and Video Collective was spearheading a black film movement across the pond in the U.K. and in 1986 Spike Lee opened the doors for black filmmakers with his feature film debut She's Gotta Have it. It was an exciting time of possibility, and Virgo and D'Oliveira leveraged that moment to make bold artistic statements and craft a space for themselves in the Canadian film and television industry.

Oprah Winfrey in a scene from Greenleaf, a new OWN series executive produced by Clement Virgo. (OWN)

These days Virgo serves as executive producer of the OWN series Greenleaf in addition to directing episodes of the show, and Conquering Lion is working on an adaptation of Laurence Hill's latest novel The Illegal with the CBC.

I spoke with Virgo and D'Oliveira last week by telephone and our interview quickly evolved into a rich conversation that covered an astounding array of topics. The two men gave hilarious anecdotes about their first meeting, told me about what it feels like to become pioneers and reflected on why they still hesitate with connecting to a Canadian identity.

What were your first impressions of each other and why did you begin collaborating?

Clement Virgo: I'm trying to recall the first time I saw Damon. I remember the hair.

Damon D'Oliveira: (laughs)

CV: It was very late '80s, early '90s kind of long, almost wannabe new wave, very feathered and long. But soon after that, I saw someone that was very focused and dedicated and ambitious. I recognized the same kind of ambitions I had. We became fast friends.

DO: And I think I proved to him there was a brain under that head of hair. My impression of Clement was he was a fashion plate (laughs).


CV: Yeah, I went to fashion school — I wanted to be a designer and I worked in fashion for about four years. Tom Ford has the exact career that I wanted. I'm thinking maybe as an older filmmaker now I should go back and experiment a little bit with fashion design. I feel like I'm going back to the things that I used to love.

DO: I think in your filmmaking there's a similar journey. Our short film "Save My Lost Nigga Soul" and Rude were really stylistic films that were made with a lot of emphasis on the style and the look of it. And then Clement started getting a little more puritan and sort of stripping away.

CV: Yeah, my natural inclination is to be a bit theatrical but somewhere along the line I got it into my head that it shouldn't be so self-conscious. I remember when we did our first film Rude there was a person that saw that film and dismissed it outright as being pure style. And a month later we were invited to Cannes.

DO: Well actually what happened is — we invited a lot of Canadian distributors, a room of white faces, and the entire room dismissed the film on first viewing. And it was the same film that went in front of a Cannes jury and got in. So I feel like with our work we're always pushing doors open.

When you were making Rude, did you realize that what you were doing was pioneering?

The Rude team at Cannes in 1995. (Courtesy of CFC)

CV: Well, no. At the time you have to remember it was the beginning of a black film renaissance which kind of started a few years earlier with Spike Lee, and soon after that there were these films that came out of England by these black British filmmakers. It felt like we were kind of a wave of black diasporic films that were being made. We felt like we were part of a movement and we just happened to be one of the first in Canada. But I never saw it as we were making history. I looked at it as participating in a kind of movement.

Damon, I know your background is in acting. Did you know that you would also decide to get into producing? How did that happen?

DO: Acting can be a bit boring where you're sitting around waiting for a phone to ring. For me it was always important to make my own work. And of course at that time, there were shit roles for people that looked like me. Nobody was writing culturally specific work at that time. So that's always been my agenda with the stuff that I choose — to represent characters, stories, ideas that are true to my experience as a migrant to this country in the '70s.

I was watching an old interview with you, Clement, where you were talking about being at Cannes for the first time and you were going through the program and you saw your name and the name of the film and it said "From Canada." And you stared at it for a long time and said, "Oh. I guess I'm Canadian." (everyone laughs) Why was this a realization and did it change things for you?

CV: The immigrant experience never leaves you. It's very formative. It affects who you think you are nationally — even now. Every time I cross the border I think, "Are they gonna let me in?" It's always in the back of my mind that I'm not gonna be let back into the country. It's kind of irrational in some ways. But maybe not. It's that sense of belonging. This idea around national identity is always something that I've struggled with.

DO: The moment for me was when we took The Book of Negroes to Parliament Hill to show all the representatives in the House our work. For me that was like, "Wow. I guess I am Canadian now." There was something almost metaphysical about that day.

Director Clement Virgo on the set of The Book of Negroes.
Actors Aunjanue Ellis (left) and Cuba Gooding Jr. appear in a scene from The Book of Negroes. (Joe Alblas/Conquering Lion Pictures/Out of Africa Pictures/CBC)

For that to still be a question for two individuals who have helped to build this film industry in important and imperative ways is very fascinating.

DO: Yeah, it's weird. When you leave a country around 12, your memories are still there. I still have dreams of Guyana. But I suppose my identity as a Canadian is growing stronger as we make more work.

Why have you both stayed in Canada? I know there's work that you do in the U.S., but why do you both always return?

CV: In terms of film and television, we can't really think of Canada as a single market or the industry as a single place. We live in an integrated and global world. I live in Canada and I love living in Canada — I love living in Toronto. I feel at home there. But in terms of my career, I see my career as rooted around the world.


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.