'The focus is about Black lives and Black voices:' Utopia Falls creator's must-watch list

With anti-Black racism being discussed widely in the public sphere, and more and more interest for anti-racism resources, we asked Utopia Falls' creator, R.T. Thorne, to curate a selection of CBC Gem films and documentaries that you can add to your viewing list.

R.T. Thorne's series Utopia Falls illustrates diverse young leaders who rise up against their oppressors, something the world is in need of and, thankfully, is not of short supply. 

Born in Calgary but now living in Toronto, Thorne has built a long career as a television director, producer, filmmaker, and music video director for a number of artists including Kardinal Offishall, Belly, and Shawn Desman. With an obvious keen eye for incorporating music in his storytelling, it was only natural that the heroes in Utopia Falls were driven by music and the arts.

Earlier this year, Thorne sat with us and described his show as a "love letter to hip-hop" and told us why he created Utopia Falls. He took his love for the music genre, sci-fi, and a need to create something that he was not seeing in the world to tell a very relevant story.

The creation of Utopia Falls with R.T. Thorne

3 years ago
Duration 4:01
R.T. Thorne tells us what inspired him to create Utopia Falls and how the all-star team came together.

With anti-Black racism being discussed widely in the public sphere, and more and more interest for anti-racism resources, we asked Thorne to curate a selection of CBC Gem films and documentaries that you can add to your viewing list.

Unarmed Verses

This documentary, directed by Charles Officer, follows Francine Valentine, a young girl who is trying to find her own voice through poetry and music while her community is being revitalized, putting her home and family at risk.

While the larger scope of this narrative is about the gentrification of her neighbourhood, the real focus is how a single Black life does matter.

"It's a snapshot of these young Black lives," Thorne says of the film. "They're just trying to find their way, and trying to find their voice, and realizing their voice is important and valid."

It's a quiet yet powerful look at one of many stepping stones in the Black Lives Matter movement.
It's a lovingly crafted film. It really states that these Black lives do matter.- On 

The Skin We're In 

One might be able to draw a dotted line between Unarmed Verses and The Skin We're In, Journalist Desmond Cole's essay-turned-documentary (also directed by Charles Officer) that faces systemic racism in Canada head-on. 

"They are almost companion pieces. They show two ends of the struggle," R.T. states as he compares the two documentaries, particularly the moment in The Skin We're In when Cole explores the history of Africville and how that community was demolished to make way for Halifax housing. "It shows that gentrification... its roots are deep in our history."

Thorne also praises the documentary's hero. "Desmond Cole… what a force!"

The film does not shy away from declaring that Canada's hands are not clean of anti-Black racism. Canadian Black lives matter. 

"The legacy of The Skin We're In, as a piece, really shows how far we've come in the acceptance of [Black Lives Matter], and probably how far we have still to go."

In calling out systemic racism in our culture, our politics, and our society, the documentary continues to drive the conversation, pushing people into action and bringing them together to support Black Lives Matter. Whether it came out 20 years ago, 10 years ago or 10 days ago, it's a conversation that has stayed relevant, and Thorne is hopeful that change is on the horizon.

"Out of this pain. Out of this anger and outrage," he reflects, "is a chance for real change and it feels different."

He's such a powerful voice in it and so unapologetic.- On Desmond Cole

Black Cop 

Ronnie Rowe plays a Black cop who is racially profiled and assaulted by fellow officers who are white. This takes him down an almost cathartic path of vengeance that turns the lenses on a reality Black people face each day. Bold, uncompromising, and often at times satirical, Cory Bowles' debut feature film Black Cop flips the script and perspective on the very real police brutality against Black people in Canada.

"It's part satire, part drama. There's also a feeling of standup in it. There are all these different aspects of this film which is just really unique as a piece. And then take tackling this sort of subject matter. This idea of a Black police officer who gets racially profiled by his own people, in his own 'blue gang,' and then psychologically how that affects him. It goes further in what it must be for a lot of Black police officers who have to police their own people in a system that is racist toward their own people and how they feel about that, and the conflict they feel about that and the anger that they feel about that. It's just a really interesting piece that examines that from a different point of view."

It was complex, in form and in subject matter.- On Black Cop

Jean of the Joneses

Family values and connections are the thread of this film directed by Stella Meghie, and produced by Floyd Kane and Amos Adetuyi, the creators of Diggstown

While previous picks were powerful social commentaries on anti-Black and systemic racism, Thorne notes that Black voices telling Black stories was also about people and the lives they live, comical or otherwise.

"The focus is about Black lives and Black voices, so here is a film that is a joyful expression of Black lives and particularly Black women which is just wonderful to see," R.T. explains. "Quirky and funny, and very lived-in women."

A fun expression of family and Black women living their lives.- On Jean of the Joneses

Rebelle (War Witch)

R.T. describes this 2012 film as, "A journey of a young Black girl being forced into womanhood."

Written and directed by Montreal director Kim Nguyen, Rebelle (War Witch) is seen through the eyes of Komona (Rachel Mwanza) as she tells her unborn baby the story of her life as a child soldier in a civil war in Africa.

Though heavy and at times hard to watch, it is a story of resilience.

R.T. says, "She's forced into this situation but then she carves out her own life and tries to escape and find her own way."

It's as heart-wrenching as it is powerful.​​​​​​- On Rebelle (War Witch)

You can stream all of these films as part of the CBC Gem collection, What R.T. Thorne is Watching as well as the complete first season of R.T. Thorne's empowering sci-fi series, Utopia Falls.


Michelle Villagracia is a writer and producer for CBC Life and CBC Arts who loves to bake and uses movie quotes to express real human emotions. She also tries to insert D&D or her cat into every conversation. Follow her on Instagram @mivi3k.