Vancouver film historian Greg Tourino's top film and book picks about the African-Canadian experience
Growing up on the Canadian prairies, local film historian Greg Tourino sought out films that offered a reflection of his experiences of being a black person in Canada.
Now a librarian, doctoral student and blogger at Simon Fraser University, Tourino is following that interest by chronicling films and filmmakers in the African Canadian diasporic community. He explained how diasporic film offers viewers access to important stories often left out of historical narratives.
“I still remember watching Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and John Singelton’s Boyz 'N the Hood in 1991 and for the first time seeing aspects of my own experience reflected,” he said. “Because the African Canadian population is so small, and we’re not a big part of the Canadian narrative, there’s a difference here compared to in the US, where there’s no argument whether African Americans are part of history.”
Tourino explained African-Canadian cinema is unique in that it reflects the local experiences of various communities in Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. The following is Greg’s guide to some key African-Canadian flicks (and one book):
Films about the history of segregated schools in Canada
“In the US, the history of African-Americans is very much a part of the national narrative, and Black culture like R&B or Hip-hop is embedded within popular culture. In Canada, much of our history is left out of the narrative. These documentaries explore the history of segregated schools in Canada. Many people might not know this, but segregated schools existed in Canada—in fact the last one didn’t close until 1983. Drawing on her experiences attending a segregated primary school in the 1960s, Sylvia Hamilton examines institutional racism within the Halifax school system.”
Intro to African-Canadian filmmaking and Black history in Nova Scotia
“Black history in Nova Scotia goes back over 300 years—with a community comprised of the descendants of slaves, Black loyalists who fought on the side of the British during the American revolution, and Maroons who were exiled to Nova Scotia from Jamaica. While it deals with more contemporary issues, this film is set in Halifax and offers an introduction to Nova Scotian and African-Canadian filmmaking. It examines issues such as tribalism, tensions between the black and white communities in Halifax, and systemic racism.”
Documentary about African-Canadians in Toronto area
“African Canadian films from Ontario often deal with elements of Caribbean culture. While EMPZ 4 Life wasn’t made by an African-Canadian filmmaker, Allan had a lot of community involvement when shooting, and so it’s an accurate reflection of the subject. It looks at a lot of the contemporary issues faced by the African-Canadian population in and around Toronto. These include systemic discrimination in job markets, the education system and police harassment: many of the problems raised by Stephen Lewis’ 1992 Report on Race Relations in Ontario."
An example of the Black experience in Vancouver and Chicago
“Hubert Davis was the first and only African-Canadian nominated for an Academy Award. His documentary Hardwood deals with his relationship with his father, a Harlem Globetrotter. Half of the film is set in Vancouver, the other half in Chicago. It shows an example of Black experience that’s specific to both BC and the US.”
A book about the history of Canadian slavery
“In Canada, there’s an over 200-year-long history of slavery, but that’s not really talked about. Instead, we tend to emphasize the positive, like the Underground Railroad. However, slavery was first documented in New France in 1628 and existed in parts of Upper and Lower Canada until it was legally abolished in 1834. This book, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, looks at the Canadian history of slavery and Black Loyalists during colonial times.”