Black History and Culture in Canada
Here is a list of National Film Board of Canada titles related to black history and culture in Canada. They are in no particular order. Teachers are encouraged to preview the series before use and choose the dramas most age appropriate for their students. For further information please visit nfb.ca.
compiled by Leanne Miller, OCT
Speakers for the Dead
directed by Jennifer Holness and David Sutherland (2000), 49.8 minutes
In the 1930s in rural Ontario, farmer Bill Reid buried the tombstones of a black cemetery under a pile of broken rocks to make way for a potato patch. In the 1980s, descendants of the original settlers, black and white, came together to restore the cemetery, opening deep racial wounds. Scenes of the cemetery excavation, interviews with residents and re-enactments — including one of a baseball game in which a broken headstone is used for home plate — add to the film's emotional intensity.
directed by Marie Chartrand (2000), 9.8 minutes
This animated short dives into the heart of black culture with an exhilarating trip though history. Watch as a boy traces his roots through the animated stories his grandmother shares with him about the events that shaped their cultural heritage.
directed by Jill Haras (2002), 8.9 minutes
Using a colourful blend of music, poetry, cut-out and computer animation, this film celebrates the life of Seraphim “Joe” Fortes. For more than 30 years, Joe Fortes swam in English Bay, a self-appointed lifeguard who became so famous that the city of Vancouver finally gave him a salary for doing what he loved best. He taught thousands of people to swim, saved over a hundred lives, and through his kindness changed peoples' attitudes to his skin colour.
Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia
directed by Sylvia Hamilton (1992), 28.9 minutes
In their predominantly white high school in Halifax, black students face daily reminders of racism, ranging from racist graffiti on washroom walls to the omission of black history from textbooks. They work to establish a Cultural Awareness Youth Group, a vehicle for building pride and self-esteem through educational and cultural programs. With help from mentors, they discover their rich heritage and learn ways they can effect change.
The Road Taken
directed by Selwyn Jacob (1996), 52 minutes
The story of black sleeping-car porters who worked on Canada's railways from the early 1900s through to the 1960s is told here through interviews, archival footage and music. There was a strong sense of pride among these men, yet their working conditions were harsh and they were not promoted to other railway jobs until finally, in 1955, porter Lee Williams took his fight to the union, claiming discrimination under the Canada Fair Employment Practices Act.
directed by Gilles Groulx (1961), 27.8 minutes
A classic NFB documentary about the Golden Gloves boxing tournament, the Canadian amateur's hope for success in the boxing world. Featured here are three Montréal boxers in training, who talk about their ambitions and what prompted them to take up the sport.
directed by Don Haldane (1957), 28.8 minutes
This sensitive drama tells the story of a couple, Roy and Judy, and the reactions they encounter when they announce their intention to marry, reactions complicated by the fact that Roy is black and Judy is white.
The Magic Lion
directed by Charles Githinji (2004), 6.9 minutes
An animated short about an African boy who goes on a quest to save the life of his sick grandfather. In his search for healers in a mysterious village, he encounters a strange lion caught in a trap. When he boy is freed, the lion takes him on an adventure.
The Cora Player
directed by Cilia Sawadogo (1996), 7.1 minutes
A young couple from Burkina Faso fall in love, but because they are from different social classes they must defy tradition to be together. This film is based on Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which upholds the right to love freely, blind to convention and social class.
Jump-Up: Caribbean Carnival in Canada
directed by Claire Heiman (1995), 10.8 minutes
A girl, newly arrived from the West Indies, and her Canadian neighbour discover how the black community organizes a yearly festival featuring costumes, music and history.
directed by Hubert Davis (2009), 75.8 minutes
In the inner-city housing project of Toronto's Regent Park, their surroundings and social pressure tempt Kendell and Mikey to make poor choices, while their mothers and mentors root for them to succeed. Turning his camera on the often-ignored inner city, Academy-Award-nominated director Hubert Davis depicts the disconnection of urban poverty and race from the mainstream.
directed by Shelagh Mackenzie (1991), 35 minutes
This short film depicts Africville, a former black settlement in the city of Halifax. In the 1960s, the families who lived there were uprooted and their homes demolished in the name of urban renewal and integration. Now, more than 20 years later, the site of the community of Africville is a stark, under-utilized park. The story of the painful relocation is told by former residents, their descendants and some of the decision makers, with the help of archival films and photos.
directed by Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal (2008), 74 minutes
Nigeria's film industry, Nollywood, is the third largest in the world, an unstoppable force that is now bursting beyond the borders of Africa. This documentary delivers an electric vision of Lagos, Africa's leading metropolis, and a revealing look at the powerhouse that is Nigerian cinema.
directed by David Christensen and Damien Lewis (2005), 89.2 minutes
Shot in cinema-vérité style, this feature documentary immerses the viewer in the sights and sounds of the world's largest field hospital, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sudan (ICRC). The ICRC allowed filmmakers David Christensen and Damien Lewis unprecedented access to the surgical hospital and members of the medical staff as they went about their duties, caring for wounded Sudanese soldiers and women and children, all casualties of the civil war. With no narrator and minimal explanation, War Hospital simply and powerfully captures the joy and sadness of life and death.
directed by Nicolas Brault (2008), 9.2 minutes
Under the African sun, a child walks in the desert with his kin. Death is prowling, but a mother's soul resurrected by music will return strength and life to the child when he becomes a man. Inspired by the grace and raw beauty of African rock paintings, Nicolas Brault paints a story without borders, with the humanity and elegance of a universal narrator.
Hungu: Inspired by Capoeira
directed by Nicolas Brault (2008), 6.5 minutes
Mestre Jogo de Dentro talks about the dance called capoeira, tracing its roots to the African slaves who were brought to Brazil.
directed by Charles Officer (2010), 83.6 minutes
http://www.onf-nfb.gc.ca/eng/collection/film/?id=56900 From acclaimed filmmaker Charles Officer comes the story of the rise, fall and redemption of Harry Jerome, Canada's record-setting track-and-field star. Gorgeous monochrome imagery, impassioned interviews and astonishing archival footage tell the triumphant and compelling story of what Harry Jerome's own coach called the greatest comeback in track-and-field history.
Encounter at Kwacha House — Halifax
directed by Rex Tasker (1967), 18 minutes
A lively discussion between black and white youths at the interracial club in Halifax, touching on racial discrimination in employment, housing, education and interpersonal relations.
The Colour of Beauty
directed by Elizabeth St. Philip (2010), 16.8 minutes
Renee Thompson is trying to make it as a top fashion model in New York. She's got the looks, the walk and the drive. But she's a black model in a world where white women represent the standard of beauty. Agencies rarely hire black models, and when they do, they want them to look like “white girls dipped in chocolate.” This shocking short documentary examines racism in the fashion industry.
directed by Julian Biggs (1954), 30 minutes
This film goes to Dresden, Ontario to sample the racial discrimination against black people that brought this town into the news in the mid 20th-century. After a roundup of the opinions of individual citizens, white and black, commentator Gordon Burwash joins two discussion panels, presenting opposite points of view. The rights and wrongs of the quarrel are left for the audience to decide.
Sitting in Limbo
directed by John N. Smith (1986), 95.3 minutes
Full of warmth and humour, this feature film provides an intimate look at the lives of four black teenagers in 1980s Montréal.
Journey to Justice
directed by Roger McTair (2000), 47 minutes
This film charts the little-known history of Canada's civil rights movement, profiling the brave Canadians who led the fight for equality from the 1930s until the 1950s. It serves as a powerful testament to their contribution to the evolution of Canadian democracy.
Older, Stronger, Wiser
directed by Claire Prieto (1989), 28 minutes
Five black women talk about their lives in rural and urban Canada between the 1920s and 1950s. What emerges is a unique history of Canada's black people and the legacy of their community elders. This is the first film in a Studio D series titled Women at the Well.
directed by Meilan Lam (1998), 52 minutes
A celebration of Montréal's swinging black jazz scene from the 1920s to the 1960s. Three women who danced in the legendary black clubs of the day — Rockhead's Paradise, The Terminal and Café St. Michel — share their memories of life at the centre of one of the world's hottest jazz spots. This is a story of song and dance, music and pride.
Sisters in the Struggle
directed by Dionne Brand and Ginny Stikeman (1991), 49.3 minutes
This documentry features black women active in politics as well as community, labour and feminist organizing. They share their insights and personal testimonies on the double legacy of racism and sexism, linking their struggles with the ongoing battle to end systemic discrimination and violence against women and people of colour.
Fields of Endless Day
directed by Terence Macartney-Filgate (1978), 58.2 minutes
A look at the presence of black people in Canada from the 17th century to the wartime participation and activist groups of the first half of the 20th century. This film uncovers the roots of Canada's black people, tracing the history of their struggles and triumphs over a period of almost 375 years.
Black Mother Black Daughter
directed by Sylvia Hamilton and Claire Prieto (1989), 29 minutes
A look at the lives and experiences of black women in Nova Scotia, their contributions to the home, the church and the community, and the strengths they passed on to their daughters.
Brother 2 Brother
directed by Russell Wyse (2004), 40 minutes
Corey Lucas, the father of a three-year-old son, grew up in Jellybean Square, a housing project in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and took to selling drugs on the street. At the heart of this film lies director Russell Wyse's conviction that, despite the odds against them, young black men can succeed if they have the will, the opportunity and the support of a community.
directed by Selwyn Jacob (1991), 14 minutes
Carol is interested in playing the lead in her school play. The only problem is that the school puts on Snow White every year, and Carol is black. After much lively debate, Carol and her classmates find a solution. This film, part of the Playing Fair series, shows how prejudice, racism and cultural expectations place limits on what people can do with their lives.
Christopher Changes His Name
directed by Cilia Sawadogo (2000), 6.5 minutes
Christopher hates his name; it's just too common! When Aunt Gail from Trinidad tells him a story about a larger-than-life character called Tiger, Christopher changes his name to Tiger. But then he finds a better name. When he has trouble cashing Aunt Gail's birthday cheque made out to Christopher Mulamba, he realizes how special his real name is. Maybe he should stick with it — or maybe not! Part of the Talespinners collection of short animations based on children's stories old and new.
directed by Monika Delmos (2008), 51.5 minutes
They arrive underage and alone, often traumatized and seeking asylum in a country completely alien to their own. In Ontario, the government system in place for their care is surprisingly lacking. This documentary is a cinematic portrait of a year in the life of two such teenagers.
Eye Witness No. 33
produced by Gordon Burwash (1951), 11 minutes
The Eye Witness series is a collection of short documentaries featuring Canadian news stories from the 1940s and 1950s. The Ship that Never Sails: The S.S. Lurcher, riding at permanent anchor over the treacherous shoals 20 miles from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, does double duty as lighthouse and weather station. Freedom Jamboree: For its big annual show, Windsor's black population, augmented by visitors from the south, turns out en masse for a three-day celebration to commemorate the freeing of American slaves. A Metal Mountain: From British Columbia's fabulous Sullivan Mine comes a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lead and zinc, blasted from within the mountain's cavernous tunnels.
directed by Lulu Keating (1993), 24 minutes
This is the story of a black girl's first exposure to racism. Young Nell looks forward to the weekly visits from Helen, a family friend. Helen is “in service” in a big house, which Nell imagines must be wonderful. After all, doesn't Helen live in a big house? And doesn't she often bring beautiful clothes for Nell's family? When Nell visits Helen, she comes to understand what “in service” really means. She also comes to understand herself a little better.
In the Key of Oscar
directed by William R. Cunningham (1992), 94 minutes
This intimate portrait of pianist Oscar Peterson charts his meteoric rise from a boogie-woogie teenage sensation in Montréal to international celebrity as a jazz virtuoso. Acclaimed for their talent, Peterson and other great black jazz artists endured racial prejudice during their rise to fame. Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and many more share their memories of the harrowing experiences they lived through in order to achieve success.
In the Name of the Mother and the Son
directed by Maryse Legagneur (2005), 52.5 minutes
A picture of two youths of Haitian origin in the Montréal neighbourhood of Saint-Michel. The film is a cri de coeur for the women of Haiti who, like the mothers of these two young men, sacrificed so much to give their children a better future. It also provides a view of the prejudice that, even today, plagues young Québecers of Haitian origin. French with English subtitles.
Jeni LeGon — Living in a Great Big Way
directed by Grant Greschuk (1999), 49.5 minutes
Meet Jeni LeGon — a talented and passionate dancer who became the first black woman to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. A warm and vibrant storyteller, she reflects on her 82 years of life, sharing her dreams and struggles. Jeni grew up in Chicago, where she taught herself to dance, and in the late 1960s became a teacher and choreographer in Vancouver. Include are interviews with tap dancer Fayard Nicholas and archival footage of Fayard and Harold Nicholas, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fats Waller, Paul Robeson and Cab Calloway.
The Journey of Lesra Martin
directed by Cheryl Foggo (2002), 45.9 minutes
Lesra Martin was poor, illiterate and struggling on the violent streets of Brooklyn when a chance encounter with a group of Canadians pulled him from the chaos of the inner city and gave him a fresh start in Canada. Lesra became a hero when he helped bring justice to wrongfully imprisoned American boxer Rubin Hurricane Carter. Today Lesra is a lawyer and motivational speaker on the world stage. Delving into the intensely personal story beneath the fame, this film brings together intimate interviews with Lesra, his family and friends.
Listening for Something … Adrienne Rich and Dionne Brand in Conversation
directed by Dionne Brand (1996), 56 minutes
Adrienne Rich is a distinguished American feminist poet and the author of numerous books of prose, poetry, essays and speeches. Dionne Brand is a Trinidadian-Canadian feminist poet, writer and filmmaker. Incisive and inquisitive, the two women meet to discuss the world as they see it. Topics include political issues, feminism, racism and lesbianism. Shot in black and white and in color, the conversation takes us over the territories of their poetry.
Long Time Comin'
directed by Dionne Brand (1993), 52.5 minutes
There is a cultural revolution going on in Canada, and Faith Nolan and Grace Channer are on the leading edge. These two African-Canadian lesbian artists give back to art its most urgent meanings — commitment and passion. Grace Channer's large, sensuous canvasses and musician Faith Nolan's gritty and joyous blues propel this documentary into the spheres of poetry and dance. Intimate conversations with the two artists capture their work, their urgency, and their friendship.
Long Ways to Go
directed by John Howe (1966), 28 minutes
Made with the help of the Union United Church of Montréal, this film dramatizes some of the more common rebuffs met by West Indian blacks as they look for work, somewhere to live, and a toehold on equal terms in their adopted land. The resolute mood of the black community is suggested in one sequence when they meet with a civil-rights organizer.
directed by Lesley Ann Patten (1999), 57 minutes
The story of two women whose meeting brought together two halves of a whole story: that of slave owner and slave. Dr. Ruth Whitehead met graduate student Carmelita Robertson in 1995 when the younger woman was doing research at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax. On discovering their shared roots in South Carolina, they embark on a journey to the modern South in search of their connection. Beneath the dense foliage of the plantations, in the sweltering heat of white patronage and black forbearance, the two women come to terms with the thunderous cruelty of the past.
No Time to Stop
directed by Helene Klodawsky (1990), 29 minutes
Kwai Fong Lai is from Hong Kong, Alberta Onyejekwe is from Ghana, and Angela Williams is from Jamaica. They are immigrants to Canada, visible minorities and women, a combination designed to make their lives difficult. While Canadian society has yet to accustom itself to its immigrant reality, these strong and resilient women manage to adapt and survive. At home and at work, they speak candidly about the conditions that shape their lives.
Ready to Learn
directed by Nadine Tsehaie Makonnen (2003), 10.9 minutes
A moving portrait of an alternative school model that aims to instill self-esteem through African-centred learning.
Seven Shades of Pale
directed by Les Rose (1975), 28.6 minutes
http://www.onf-nfb.gc.ca/eng/collection/film/?id=11123 From a quiet, neglected corner of Nova Scotia, a meeting with the black community that shows the traditional attitudes of the older generation and the more alert, resolved stance of the young. The old still pin their hopes on the church and the preacher, while the young look more toward the Black United Front and its roving director. For both generations change is a challenge. The common hope is for a fuller life.
directed by Martin Duckworth (1990), 25 minutes
Documenting a five-day international music festival in Montréal, artists from Senegal, Tunisia and other West African countries share the stages of the city with drum ensembles and singers from Québec. Through the rhythmic bonds that link the music of many cultures, our own multicultural heritage is reflected.
Soldiers for the Streets
directed by Ngardy Conteh (2004), 11.2 minutes
After his mother was incarcerated, Ras King spent the better part of his childhood bouncing from one group home to the next. He became a hustler and a drug dealer, but after the murder of friends and a cousin, he struggled to find a way out. Now he's using his street smarts to educate and mentor youth, delivering a message of inspiration and hope through Freedom Time Magazine and the Human Improvement Movement, an organization that assists African-Canadian youth and single mothers. Together, King and his comrades offer a revolutionary style of hip hop music to empower and strengthen the community.
The Story of Okra John
produced by the National Museum of Man (1978), 11 minutes
Professional storyteller Joan Bodger entertains an audience with a traditional black folk tale about the tribulations of a slave named Okra John and how he came to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Voice of the Fugitive
directed by René Bonnière (1978), 29 minutes
In the 1850s, Canada meant freedom for many escaped slaves, but passage on the Underground Railroad was dangerous at best. This drama tells the story of one group travelling the perilous route. It also tells of the people who could be trusted to help and of the trackers and their dogs, who could cut off the lifeline to the border suddenly and cruelly.
Where I Belong
directed by Arinze Eze (2007), 45.8 minutes
Raised in Nigeria but born in Canada, Arinze Eze has always struggled to find a place of belonging. At age 21, nearly two decades after leaving Canada, he returns to his birthplace, an unfamiliar, snow-laden country where he has no lodgings and his education as an engineer is meaningless. It is a dramatic year, and cameras are with him for the entire journey. Nine years later, Arinze is settled in Canada, has fallen in love, and has a son. But as he arranges for his parents to visit, his relationship begins to crumble — again in front of the cameras. Trying to negotiate the world of his parents' traditions and the demands of his relationship, he comes to see that maybe there's a way for him to belong to both worlds.
Who Gets In?
directed by Barry Greenwald (1989) 52.4 minutes
An exploration of the many questions raised by Canada's immigration policy in the face of one of the world's largest immigration movements. Shot in Africa, Canada and Hong Kong in 1988, the film reveals first-hand what Canadian immigration officials are looking for in potential new Canadians and the economic, social and political priorities reflected in their choices. Those priorities come under scrutiny in this candid documentary.