How Canada is failing its Black filmmakers
Delay in progress masked by positive news releases, success of a few, creators say
Arnold Pinnock's dream project didn't come together easily. Instead, in the years the Canadian actor fought to pitch and produce a series rooted in the history and culture of Black people in this country, there seemed to be little interest.
"In the past, I was told straight to my face in some circumstances that there was not an audience," Pinnock told CBC News. "So financially to do a project ... it wasn't beneficial."
In the eyes of many network heads, he said, there was little appetite for such narratives, and putting money into them would only showcase how little audiences cared.
Since those early experiences, though, things have begun to change, Pinnock explained. And that shift helped him to bring the historical drama The Porter, which examines the real-life civil rights struggle of railway porters to create North America's first Black labour union, to life. Now the series is being jointly produced by CBC and BET+, and it is currently filming in Winnipeg as the largest Black-led TV series ever created in Canada.
But while his success highlights the forward progress the industry has made in supporting Black creators, other events offer a more sobering look at how far there is to go — a lag in progress that some creators say is being masked by positive news releases and the limited success of a few creators.
For example, even as Telefilm Canada pledged last year to increase representation "in order to abolish systemic racism" through its Equity and Representation Action Plan, a recent study by the Canadian Media Fund pointed to the fact that Canada has failed to capitalize on "global demand for content from Indigenous, Black or racialized creators."
Telefilm Canada only announced its plan after admitting it couldn't provide detailed answers on how much funding was allocated to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) filmmakers in the past five years, since it has not historically collected that data.
While Canadian actor-brothers Shamier Anderson and Stephan James created The Black Academy, Canada's first-ever awards show dedicated to celebrating Black talent on screen, a 2021 report by the Toronto-based not-for-profit Women in View at the same time gave the country a "dismal" rating when it comes to the hiring of Black and Indigenous women in the film and television industry.
"Growth in work for Black women and women of colour has not kept pace with broader industry trends. Of particular concern is the area of television writing," the report noted in its conclusion.
"As both film and TV draw on the same talent pool, it appears that hidden barriers are preventing Black women & women of colour writers from gaining entry to TV."
'Very, very tough road' to get series made
Pinnock noted that it was a "very, very tough road" to get The Porter developed but said the change that has been made is important — and it's possible to keep it going.
There is a vanguard of Black Canadian creators building strong stories, bringing more Black narratives home to Canada and shifting what decision-makers see as a safe bet. From The Porter's own crew of Charles Officer, R.T. Thorne, Annmarie Morais and Marsha Greene to Nova Scotia's Diggstown from showrunner Floyd Kane and many more, Pinnock said Black Canadian voices are continuing to shift the tide.
And the more they're able to do so, the more the trend will continue.
"After, you know, all of the relevance that's happened in the last two years, I believe there's more eyeballs on networks wanting to change," he said. "Because let's be straight up, BIPOC products [weren't] in the mainstream of shows being developed, and they definitely are [now]."
But even as those creators' projects see success, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall explained there are underlying issues still to be addressed.
The Brampton, Ont.-based filmmaker saw success and a jump-start to her career earlier this year when her short film, Black Bodies, was showcased at the Sundance Film Festival.
While that alone was an incredible accomplishment, Fyffe-Marshall says she was forced to see it in a very different way. Despite finding herself in the rarefied company of one of the most famous film festivals on Earth, she said no one in Canada seemed to notice or care about the achievement.
There was little celebration or media coverage until she took to Twitter to shine light on the situation. Despite being one of only six Canadian productions at the festival, she wrote, "it's been crickets in Canada."
Looking forward to watching the short film, BLACK BODIES. From Toronto to <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Sundance2021?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Sundance2021</a>, this film from <a href="https://twitter.com/directedbykells?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@directedbykells</a> and her beautiful Black Women team of collaborators should make Canada proud. Congratulations, sis. 🖤 <a href="https://t.co/KSEC51rYbZ">https://t.co/KSEC51rYbZ</a>—@ava
Soon after, Selma and When They See Us filmmaker Ava DuVernay shared the tweet — and Fyffe-Marshall said that's when people started to take notice.
While Fyffe-Marshall said the support was "beautiful," the fact that she needed validation from outside her own country was disheartening.
"It also proves the point that you do need the American co-sign," she said. "You do need to go to America to get what you want in Canada. And so [it was] very bittersweet."
She explained that Canada "has a glass ceiling that is very low" — most of the opportunities in this country are for American productions, and that problem only increases when you're looking to create original programming that focuses on BIPOC perspectives.
Black filmmakers struggle in Canada
For that reason, Fyffe-Marshall said, talented Black filmmakers rarely see their careers fostered in Canada, and they are forced to either quit, move to the United States or subsist at a low level for years.
Combined with a film industry heavily focused on grants instead of commercial success, BIPOC creators, she said, are left behind when compared with those in the U.S.
"How have we been helping people that are in the middle ground, like I am and my peers," she asked. "How are we helping people at the top who have been struggling for 15 to 20 years in the industry and are not where they should be, where they deserve to be?"
To provide an avenue of success for Black Canadian creators, Fyffe-Marshall said she wants to see a fundamental restructuring in how the film industry fosters filmmakers and promotes its films to audiences both in Canada and abroad.
That's something director and Hungry Eyes production company president Jennifer Holness agrees with. Although she's spent more than 20 years making films in Canada, until recently she was considering whether she should even continue in the industry.
A large part of that, she said, was a general lack of investment in Canadian content, "that there's just not enough money in the system."
Without that money, all Canadian productions flounder. But the flip side of the issue, which Holness said primarily affects BIPOC creators, is a related lack of "triggers" — a smaller number of companies who might develop your project.
And with fewer broadcasters and developers come gatekeepers — a small number of people who, if they say no to a project, effectively kill any opportunity of it being made. Until very recently, Holness said, those gatekeepers have been overwhelmingly white and less motivated in telling stories from underrepresented communities.
"I've just never really had a Black person or, to be honest, a diverse person of colour to pitch to in my entire 20-year career," she said.
That has also begun to shift in recent years, she said, but the system the industry operates under is still broken and still does a disservice to BIPOC creators. Even so, Holness said she wants to continue in the industry and find ways to tell stories that have been historically ignored.
"If I can tell a story, you know, that helps a young person feel valued, feel seen, feel like they're part of the fabric of this country and, you know, and have a place," she said, "I think that's more than anything else what keeps me going."
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.
With files from Sharon Wu and Eli Glasner