Charles Officer’s new film, The Mighty Jerome, is entirely black and white.
Black and white, he agrees, but he mentions a shade I’ve forgotten: grey. According to 35-year-old Officer, all three shades are important. “History and the media really wanted to make Jerome’s life black and white.” Officer insists: “I didn’t want that for my film. He was an amazing athlete. He was a bad father. He is all those things and something in the middle, shades of grey. He’s made mistakes. That’s human; that’s Harry Jerome.”
The Mighty Jerome, the first documentary Officer has written and directed, focuses on the life and career of Canadian-Jamaican track star Harry Jerome. Employing archival footage, intimate interviews and beautifully constructed reenactments, Officer tells the story of a sports legend whose triumphs were as tremendous as his tribulations.
With its magnetic monochrome imagery and vintage soundtrack, the film transports the viewer back to the late ’50s in Vancouver, where Jerome’s success as a track-and-field athlete began at the high-school level. It follows his journey competing for the University of Oregon under the coaching of Bill Bowerman and his competitions during the Summer Olympic games of 1960, ’64 and ’68.
During his career, Jerome won the bronze medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the gold in the British Empire and Commonwealth games in 1966 and yet another gold in the 1967 Pan American Games. At his height as an athlete, Jerome set seven world records.
The film pays equal attention to Jerome’s crippling injuries and the racism he experienced on and off the track. Focus is given to Jerome’s troubling relationships with his family—especially his daughter—and the Canadian media, which he eventually won over, receiving a kind of redemption. The film ends with his untimely death at 42 due to a brain aneurysm, and gives a sense of his legacy, which still inspires young athletes today.
Officer’s film was produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and based on the book by Fil Fraser, Running Uphill. Officer said Selwyn Jacobs asked him if he was interested in the project in 2007, when he was in the middle of production for his Canadian Film Centre (CFC) feature drama Nurse.Fighter.Boy.
The story had always been of interest to Fraser and Selwyn, who are old friends and yearned to make a film about Jerome before their careers were over. The project was a labour of love, so much so that even though Fraser was sick in the hospital when the film screened for the first time, he dragged himself there, attached to a respirator.
Ironically, Officer said the most he knew of Jerome when the film was presented to him was what he had learned by accompanying a former girlfriend to the annual Harry Jerome awards in 2002. But as soon as the offer was presented to him, he was simultaneously intrigued and intimidated.
“The NFB was interviewing other directors as well and [I was thinking they] had already decided who was going to make the film and it wasn’t me,” he says. It was something Officer says he got over gradually, with the kind guidance and help of Selwyn Jacobs.
Intimidation wasn’t the only challenge that Officer encountered while making the film. Collecting and getting approval for the momentous amount of archival footage to be used proved to be difficult, forcing Officer to put on a producing hat he wasn’t really comfortable wearing.
In addition to the logistics, there was the distance. Most of the people he was talking to were in Vancouver and he is based in Toronto.
Officer found aspects of approaching a documentaryfor the first time to be challenging. According to Officer, Selwyn Jacobs generally works by creating a very short scenario; whereas Officer’s script was over 100 pages long and followed the story of Jerome like a fiction film. As the key producer, Jacobs graciously let Officer do it his way and bring his strengths as a fiction-film writer to the table. Officer added narrative elements such as reenactments with actors and spoken-word excerpts performed by Saul Williams. Mixing non-traditional documentary elements is something Officer hopes that his audiences will embrace.
Officer struggled with one main question that he answered early in the writing process: how do you tell a story about someone who is not alive, who cannot speak for himself?
“You need others to tell the story,” he says quickly, with assurance.
The director gathered those others—former friends, family and coaches, in Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton—to collect their interviews in order to tell the story of Jerome. He created gallery-installation sets in each location, filled with photographs, objects and audio tracks of Jerome. Officer said this added a lot of extra work, but was worth it because he wanted the subjects to be emotionally engaged in the environment they were being interviewed in.
Officer said he mostly received support from Jerome’s old friends and colleagues, but not all. Several of Jerome’s family members were unsupportive and wanted no part in contributing to the film due to family animosity and issues with how the Olympic runner was depicted in Running Uphill. However, Officer says one of the most rewarding aspects of completing the project was the way Jerome’s family and friends expressed how participation in the film affected them.
“All the family that were involved said they were so grateful they had done it. They said it was very healing, and many of them got a sense of closure from talking about their experiences with him. They got an opportunity to let it all out in a way they wouldn’t normally get a chance to,” says Officer.
In particular, Jerome’s daughter, who has been attending and speaking at the annual Harry Jerome awards for 27 years, found a long-awaited sense of peace regarding her relationship with her father, who was mostly a ghost to her while he was alive.
“Her father died when she was 18. There were so many things in the archives she hadn’t even seen, things she wasn’t even aware that he had said. It was like she was discovering her father all over again, and that was very comforting and healing to her,” Officer comments.
Officer says making the film brought him closer to Jerome. Doing research for the film made the young director aware of a common bond between them. Like Jerome, Officer competed as a Jamaican-Canadian athlete at an extremely competitive level. Although Officer played hockey, he says the issue of racism was familiar to him as well.
“Every time I walked into a dressing room during try-outs, I felt and I knew that everyone was writing me off. They’d look at me like, ‘Who is this guy?’ It was as if I smelled like shit,” Officer says, lowering his voice.
“After a few minutes on the ice, they’d watch you and see you were worthy. Then it was all good. But you don’t forget how you were treated before that,” Officer says, his knuckles going white, clenched around his coffee cup.
He says those experiences inspired him to include the reenactment of a young Jerome running, although the viewer is not sure where he is going or what he’s running from.
“I felt like in a sense, he was forever that little boy, running away from those experiences of exclusion. They never left his body or his consciousness, and he was always trying to run away from that. That’s how Canadian society can make an ‘other’ feel: small, like an eternal child your entire life.”
Officer says he could also relate to the difficulty Jerome had with his inter-race marriage to his wife, Wendy. Growing up in Toronto, Officer often ran into racism issues with the families of the white women he dated. He’s also familiar with hostility from the black community for dating someone white. He says it was important to him to include the clip of Wendy saying that the failure of their marriage had nothing to do with the fact that they were an interracial couple.
“I think for them, as for me, when relationships fail, it’s always been because of issues between two people. Race had nothing to do with their failed marriage, and it has had nothing to do with my relationships that have ended,” he says.
Officer says that, like Jerome, he has witnessed media being critical of African-Canadians. “I remember being a young kid and always seeing the front pages of newspapers splashed with black men’s faces always involving crime. Those faces put a fear in me, and I think they wanted to put a sense of fear in Jerome.”
Officer says he thinks young athletes today have more agency and are not afraid to speak their minds. A young Jerome set a precedent for this attitude in the ’60s, and the media was unprepared to deal with it.
“They wanted to interview him at their disposal but if they wanted to talk to him and he was training, he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t jump at their command. I think having this young black kid reject these primarily white newspeople really rubbed them the wrong way and made them very spiteful,” Officer says.
During his research he said he was astounded to come across blatantly racist, negative headlines about Jerome. In particular, when Jerome was hurt, words such as “alleged injury” popped up everywhere. Officer mentioned that the headlines were saturated with racist undertones. He said he ran across a few that said something to the effect of, ‘Send him back to Jamaica on the next boat.’
“You have to ask yourself—when you’re hoping the kid representing your country is going to fail, ‘Is there a problem there?’” Officer says, shaking his head.
Officer hopes his film will serve as a reference point for Jamaican and other black youth who are struggling with the same issues that Jerome faced, whether those issues are on a smaller scale or not.
“Growing up, I was always inspired by white hockey players like Gretzky and Lemieux. I hope the film allows black youth to build a relationship with Jerome, and feel a connection to his challenges, the ones they may face. It could give the community something to reference and be inspired by.”
Officer admits that as much as Jerome’s story is about overcoming obstacles and winning success, it is also a story of ultimately losing his most important battle. Jerome’s vehicle for his glory, his well-trained and controlled body, unexpectedly failed him and caused his early death, in a manner that Officer dubs “completely unfitting and unsexy.” In an unfair turn of events, Jerome went into a seizure in public and died shortly later at the age of 42.
The little boy from Vancouver finally stopped running.
“The end of his life seems to screw with the story structure that should have happened; it’s tragic. He rises to success, he accomplishes, he overcomes obstacles, and then he overcomes everything, [only] to have his life snuffed out,” Officer sighs.
“I’d like to think with my film I’m keeping part of him going. His legacy: his fierce dedication, his quiet activism. There are so many ways to leave your mark. I think Harry shows us that.”