The short documentary Reel Black ends with a simple but large question: what is the future of Canadian film? The answers range from emerging filmmakers like Christian Anderson saying that she thinks the future of Canadian film is “gonna be radical as hell.” A director like Karen Chapman, meanwhile, is direct. “I see people getting paid,” she says.
Reel Black: Our Stories, which is now streaming on CBC Gem, surveys the state of filmmaking for Black creators in Canada. That’s a huge conversation for a 20-minute documentary, but the film lets generations of Black artists ask why the Canadian scene resists change. Created by Tristen Sutherland, Alexx Bryant, Ayan Tani, Émeraude Domingos Mbuku, Leilah Dhoré, and Enni Balo as part of their work with OYA Media’s Emerging Filmmaker Program, Reel Black draws upon the experiences of veteran filmmakers who broke barriers years ago, as well as emerging talents confronting the same hurdles today.
The film, for example, draws ample wisdom from Claire Prieto-Fuller, a veteran who’s been a driving force in the industry for decades. She unpacks the challenge of pitching a Black story to broadcasters and funders who want films that appeal to “all” Canadians, yet have a mandate to reflect specific experiences. Alternatively, Prieto-Fuller recalls that brass might have used the excuse that they made a Black film the previous year, as if Black stories are a one-and-done commodity. When a producer like Prieto-Fuller recalls her experience with a 1977 film like Some Black Women and the words echo in that challenges that a director like Karen Chapman faces making a 2019 short like Measure, the film makes clear that the industry needs an overhaul for substantial change to happen.
Class of ’95 and the Next Generation
Reel Black also shows that there’s no shortage of Black talents in Canada, but rather an unwillingness to level the playing field. The film looks back at the landmark year of 1995 when Rude, directed by Clement Virgo and produced by Karen King and Damon D’Oliveira, caused a stir at the Cannes Film Festival and proved a watershed as the first Canadian feature led by an all-Black team. Four years later, Christene Browne broke a glass ceiling with Another Planet as the first Black woman to direct a dramatic feature in Canada. King and Browne both appear in Reel Black and note that it’s still rare to see the names of Black women in the credits and Black faces on a film set in a city as diverse as Toronto. The film pays particular attention to the work that Black women have done to inspire change in the industry.
Other perspectives illustrate the hard work that goes into breaking through the industry once a film is made. Reel Black, for example, revisits the story of Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s lack of coverage from Canadian media during Sundance 2021, and subsequently made headlines once Ava DuVernay picked up the tweet. The story’s a cautionary tale about the challenge of cutting through the noise on the festival circuit and especially the difficulty of putting short films (and, therefore, emerging talent) on the radar. Speaking only for myself as one of the Canadians who was covering Sundance virtually that year, I admittedly had no idea her film Black Bodies was even at the festival until a colleague forwarded DuVernay’s tweet, having not looked at the shorts beyond the documentary crop. The film illustrates how the system needs to give emerging talents support throughout all phases of their journey if we want them to break through.
Reel Black ultimately gives the microphone to the next generation of filmmakers who hope to make radical movies and, yes, make a living while doing so. Emerging artists like Ajahnis Charley and Christian Anderson use 1995 as a cautionary tale. There are more Clement Virgos out there. More Christene Brownes, too. But the current push for representation needs to be more than lip service. As Charley says, everyone deserves a slice of the pie, but if that can’t happen, maybe it’s time to bake a new one.
They want to see change, and they want it now. I don’t really blame them.
Listen to the filmmakers’ stories in Reel Black on CBC Gem, and on Absolutely Canadian on CBC July 9.