Arts·Canadian Screen Week

Writer and filmmaker Charles Officer can do anything — and he's got the CSA nominations to prove it

Officer has helped created a movement for Black representation through his vast work in Canadian film and TV.

Officer has helped created a movement for Black representation through his vast work in Canadian film and TV

Charles Officer. (CBC Arts)

In anticipation of Canadian Screen Week and the Canadian Screen Awards, Johanna Schneller, co-host of The Filmmakers, talked to five nominees about what they do, how they do it, and why they love it.

Writer/director Charles Officer is nominated for two Canadian Screen Awards this year: original screenplay for the drama Akilla's Escape, which he also directed; and best direction, drama series, for Coroner (CBC). The ultimate multi-hyphenate Officer is an actor (Bury the Lead), a documentarian (The Skin We're In), a feature filmmaker (Nurse.Fighter.Boy) and a go-to director for episodic television. We discussed how to carve out a career in Canada that feeds your soul, and how to smash the boxes other people are trying to tick.

Johanna Schneller: You're currently in Winnipeg, shooting The Porter, an eight-part series for CBC and BET+ that is the biggest Black-led production in Canada to date. It's based on the true story of Black train porters in the 1920s, who sowed the seeds of the Civil Rights movement. What does it mean to you, to be on this project at this point in your career?

Charles Officer: It's the culmination of everything I've worked toward. Yes, the headline is, "the biggest Black-led show in Canada," but the important thing is to recognize why these stories haven't been told before. It's 2021, and we're the first show of its kind? That's not something to celebrate. It's something to acknowledge. But we're creating a movement. It's the entity I want to put all my energy and strength to.

JS: Have you hit roadblocks along the way?

CO: I never wanted to call out issues with the industry, but from my earliest introduction, I saw that it was going to be challenging to tell stories about people who look like me. Nurse.Fighter.Boy. was a success, but afterward nobody wanted to make the features I wanted to make. It was, "Charles, stay away from that Black violence story; you bring emotion and grounded-ness to characters." I'm like, "So why don't you think I'd do that with my quote/unquote Black violence story?" Or I'd hear, "This is a great story, but could the characters not be Black?"

JS: How did you withstand that?

CO: I decided I was going to hold making films sacred until I learned how to produce on my own. I was offered other projects, which was great, but there was this illusion: "Make this film, even if it doesn't sit right in your soul, and it will bring your career to the next level." I've been wary of drinking that Kool-Aid. Instead, I discovered documentaries.

Actors Saul Williams and Donisha Prendergast are shown in this undated handout photo from the film "Akilla's Escape." (The Canadian Press)

JS: What did you respond to there?

CO: They're grounding and real, and they influenced very much how I see fiction, and how I shoot as well. You move quickly in documentary. You have to think three steps ahead; you don't have prep time. That helps me to make decisions quickly, to problem-solve better.

JS: And then you pivoted again, to directing television.

CO: 2013 was one of the hardest years of my life. I almost went bankrupt a couple of times. My films that were supposed to happen all collapsed. I was terrified. Then David Wellington, who has been a mentor, offered me a Rookie Blue episode. I loved that television is this larger machine, and I got some toys to play with. I also love collaborating with a writer who's trusting me to bring their vision to life. And casting — I can have some control over who's getting space on TV.

Young Thamela [Mpumlwana, who plays a dual role in Akilla's Escape] — I first worked with him on 21 Thunder. I'm watching this phenomenal talent grow. Canada should know about him. He should be working more. Other kids his age who aren't Black are working all the time. I wanted to create a space for him to show his talent.

JS: Who created that space for you?

CO: The late Jacqueline McClintock, my first acting coach. Her class is where I met Scott Speedman, Sarah Polley, Clement Virgo, Ingrid Veninger, Semi Chellas  all these incredible individuals. Jacqueline pushed me to go to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. That was my first introduction to David Mamet, the concept of telling the truth in acting, "an ounce of behaviour is worth a pound of words," all these things I carry with me. That's when I wrote my first short script, seven pages. I showed it to Jacqueline, because I wanted to find a director for it. I was 23. I was a graphic designer; I was doing okay. She said, "You have to direct this." How can I direct it and be in it? She said, "You'll figure it out." That was my first short film, When Morning Comes. It was very small, very heavy. It got into TIFF. That was 2000, and I've been going since then.

From Coroner Season 2 Episode 5: One Drum, directed by Charles Officer. (CBC)

JS: You wrote the first draft of Akilla's Escape in 2009. Talk to me about patience and keeping the faith.

CO: Trust me, there's been crazy frustration and anger, questioning my skill level, doubting what I think is relevant. I try not to express that outwardly so much, because I do believe in energy. It's been a challenge. I have the voice of my mother in me: patience, build your skills, then do your thing. I realized that in this business, as a Black creator, I have to do things for myself. Otherwise it's, "This producer loves your work," and then wants me to do everything I hate.  

JS: Delicate question: are you in some of those meetings because a producer has a box to tick?

CO: Absolutely. I remember watching an early Denzel Washington interview. The interviewer mentioned all the other actors who turned down the role. He said, "It doesn't matter. I'm the one sitting in the chair." I try to listen to that. But when I'm feeling vulnerable, it makes me doubt that people believe I'm skilled enough. Yes, I'm a Black filmmaker  that's kind of obvious. But pound for pound, against other filmmakers, I can do a lot more than just tick a box.

I first met Marsha Green [The Porter's showrunner] on a series; she had just written her first half-episode. She asked me one day, "We're the only Black people here — do you think we're a box they had to tick?" I said possibly, but I'm putting that to the back of my mind. Because even if we're a mandate, we need to take this opportunity for ourselves and learn from it. Either way, we'll be better from this experience.

Listen, when I was a young filmmaker, with all my ambition and dreams and ideas, sometimes they were bigger than where I was. So I don't blame the industry for that. I believe that Charles himself had to gain skills and life experiences to be able to tell stories well. I had to find peace with the roadblocks, and believe I won't die before I get to make these things. [laughs] I'm about rolling the dice on yourself, even when it's hard.

JS: What keeps you going?

CO: My family. Nobody where I grew up worked in film or TV. But they're the audience I try to speak to first. My mom, I don't understand where her faith comes from. But I take some of it: I put my faith in my purpose. Jacqueline McClintock, who as I said got me into this mess, would say, "It doesn't get easier — it just gets more possible." I remember that. I try to bring that energy to the things I do. [laughs] And then cry behind closed doors.

The Canadian Screen Awards will be held over four nights from May 17-20, 2021.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Johanna Schneller is one of North America's leading freelance journalists specializing in entertainment features. Her work has appeared in major magazines, including Vanity Fair, In Style, Premiere, More and Ladies Home Journal. She was a senior writer in the Los Angeles bureau of GQ magazine from 1990 to 1994. Her Bigger Picture column in The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, has been nominated for five National Newspaper Awards, and won in 2021. As the co-host of CBC Arts' The Filmmakers, Schneller interviews directors and film experts about classic Canadian films. She also hosted TVO's renowned film series Saturday Night at the Movies.

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