The importance of Black Female Representation within Canada’s Film and Television Industry
In the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district sits the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Surrounded by King Street traffic, blaring car horns, ample foot traffic and bright lights, it is a physical testament to the city’s booming film and television industry, hosting numerous festivals throughout the year.
It’s a place Alicia Harris, a Toronto-based filmmaker, production designer and director, finds easily as we navigate through the construction-filled downtown core on a brisk January afternoon. The Lightbox’s semi-busy lobby provides an appropriate backdrop as we discuss the topic of representation and black women in film.
Harris’ film Pick, a story about a young black girl’s decision to wear her natural hair for her school’s picture day while also contending with the microaggressions faced when she does so, is continuing its journey across festival screens in cities within North America.
Prior to her success, Harris remembers being in film school and writing stories that didn’t reflect her or her experiences. She explains she was “writing a lot of stories that she believed were just stories she had seen” such as “white guy comedies.”
“I don’t have a problem with those movies now but it was just like nobody needs me to write those movies. I realized how little representation there was about specifically black women and pretty much just people that looked like me and have my story when I was in film school,” Harris says.
The lack of representation and diversity especially for black women on Canadian screens is a glaring issue within the country’s film industry. According to a Women in View report in 2017, “women of colour made up less than 2% of writers, 0% of cinematographers and 5% of directors.”
To add perspective, it was just 10 years prior to that study, in 2007 that the comedy television show Da Kink in My Hair debuted on Canadian television screens. Created by playwright and TV producer Trey Anthony, the former play turned show, amassed great success and provided a much-needed perspective on the Caribbean community in Toronto and black sisterhood.
“I actually first saw that show when it was a play. It was in the Bathurst and King area. At that time when I saw it, it was basically, I think six monologues and it was a simple black stage with a little podium and each monologue was ten, fifteen minutes,” says Cheryl Thompson, a Ryerson professor and author.
“[In the play] They talked about colourism, they talked about abuse, sexual abuse and child abuse, they talked about body weight. One girl talked about not being accepted because people thought she was whitewashed because she was really educated and she just liked certain things. What Trey Anthony developed in that show was just a unique point of view that I don’t think existed in the U.S. context either.”
In her article Black Canadian women artists detangle the roots of Black beauty, Thompson writes “for decades, Canadian cultural institutions have consumed African-American desires and fantasies as stand-ins for Black Canada. As a result, Black Canadian representations in popular culture have been rendered invisible.”
Given the rich history and contributions made by Black Canadians who are of Caribbean and African descent to Canadian culture, it seems unfathomable that there could be such a gap within representation and telling these types of stories. However, reality shows this gap still exists especially in mainstream media.
Perhaps that is why the CBC show Diggstown has been a breath of fresh air for Canadian audiences. Marketed as the first of its kind to feature a black woman lead in a Canadian primetime television drama, the show is heading into its second season. The series follows Marcie Diggs, a woman who grew up in the town of North Preston, Nova Scotia and her fight to help everyday people navigate the legal system.
Floyd Kane, showrunner and creator of Diggstown talked about the show in a panel discussion hosted by the Writers Guild of Canada at the Tiff Bell Lightbox, in February.
“I guess for me,” Kane said at the time, “one of the frustrations was always never seeing myself never represented on television. Canada has a large population of multigenerational black folks and I just never, I never saw them and so I think it was really important for me to represent those folks in one of those communities within the show, within Diggstown.”
Kane also explained the show “isn’t just about race.”
“I mean look at the heart of the show, our show is about class, right? And I feel like you know that story’s not told enough. I mean we’re telling a show about lawyers and about a specific lawyer who happens to be a black female who has a tremendous amount of empathy for people who are not like her. And who she’s willing to go to work every day and fight for them when the system comes after them and that’s what the show is at its core.”
In the show Marcie is allowed to be vulnerable, allowed to lose, and allowed to triumph, which is something not often afforded to black women. All too often black women are type-cast to play certain roles, roles that reinforce harmful and negative stereotypes.
A 2015 study examined how young black girls internalized and viewed images of black female representation in pop culture and how that affected their sense of identity.
The stereotypical images most prevalent today, which stem from colonization and slavery include the “Jezebel,” the “Sapphire,” “Strong Black Woman,” and the “Mammy”.
“And for black women in particular, for a long time you’re slotted into that sassy black friend or truth telling role,” says Priscilla White, a staff writer and story editor for Diggstown. “There’s a very specific character type on television. The black woman with attitude, not afraid to get up in your face and want to start something. And so, there’s always sort of a portrayal of having this hard exterior and that’s almost always up, and so you’re never really allowed to see what’s on the other side of that vulnerability.”
“I mean it’s very, very rare, but I think now I mean we’re starting to see a little bit of that,” White continues. “I see it in Marcie. You see her cry on screen. You see her upset.”
The scenes where Marcie is on a surfboard riding waves, is particularly meaningful and significant to the show.
“Well it just, for me that image is really about claiming space,” said Kane. The scenes in particular shot on location at Martinique Beach, was one thing Kane says he wouldn’t compromise on.
“A lot of the communities that are there are rural white communities and I just felt like Black Nova Scotians like we need to feel welcome in those spaces, we need to feel comfortable in those spaces. And so, it was really important for me when I was making the show the image of a black woman on a surfboard in the Atlantic Ocean like riding those waves…that was the most powerful image of all for me.”
Aside from everyday life, images in television and film are how we as humans perceive and process the world, as well as the people around us.
For black women and girls, what they see on screen is equally important to their sense of self.
“The media are instrumental in transmitting messages about traditional femininity and Black feminine ideals to Black youth and thus have strong potential for affecting their acceptance of these beliefs,” according to a 2017 study by the Journal of Black Psychology.
“I definitely think [representation] it’s important, because we kind of think we’re normal based on what we see in the media,” says Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, a Toronto based independent filmmaker, director and screenwriter. “We base ourselves being the status quo over what we see in the media and so if we don’t see ourselves we’ll always say ‘You know we’re weird or we’re not usual.’ When it comes to black female bodies, you know we’re only shown one body and you think ‘well my body doesn’t look like that and so there must be something wrong with me.’”
This is disheartening for a number of reasons. Black women shouldn’t have to live up to impossible ideals, nor a set of rigid societal standards created by a society that doesn’t favour them.
Black women are not monolithic and their stories shouldn’t be either. There is so much richness and experience to draw from, but instead the same recycled images play on in mainstream media similar to that of a looped record. And by doing so, affects the way society treats black women as well.
It has been well documented that due to media sometimes being the first and only interaction that white people have between different races, it has the ability to shape the way they interact with other races.
“Even if stereotypes reflect some amount of reality, they can lead to inaccurate over-generalizations to all members of a group and to ignoring other important information about individuals, with a variety of adverse consequences,” says a 2016 study from the Psychology of Women Quarterly.
An Essence article revealed that “White women reportedly said the negative depictions truly represented the black women they knew, while Black women reported the representation that would best reflect their reality of themselves were “Real Beauties, Modern Matriarchs, Girls Next Door and Individualists.”
While Diggstown is certainly at the forefront when it comes to current mainstream Canadian content featuring black women, that is not to say that representation in other areas within Canada’s film industry doesn’t exist.
Independent filmmakers are creating ground-breaking stories about topics not often discussed, topics that are often overlooked but still hold real and true importance.
For Harris, Pick is a personal film that explores not only a black girl’s connection to her natural hair but also the underlying microaggressions within Canadian society and subsequently racism faced by black women.
“I think if we think there is no racism in Canada then we’re not working to change it, we’re not growing, we’re not learning,” Harris explains.
“I do think sometimes you’re just guided to tell certain stories…but if I could point it to one thing it would just be like I’ve never seen this story told. I just tried to portray something simply like I wanted to portray microaggressions. I didn’t want it to be overdramatic because I wanted to just focus on her experience.”
Another film centering around a child’s perspective about a serious topic and does it well, is Haven, a short film by Kelly Fyffe-Marshall. Haven explores childhood sexual assault in a way that is easily understood by the audience. The film opens with a scene that is familiar to many black women and girls — sitting between a mother’s legs to get their hair done. It is there where the child reveals the extent of what has occurred to her mother. Though brief, the message and film were powerful, so much so that Fyffe-Marshall’s film premiered at the 2018 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
“We didn’t know all the things it [Haven] was gonna do and so we were very surprised. I knew it was a great film but… I didn’t know how impactful it was gonna be. It’s about child sexual assault and at the time I didn’t know anybody that had been assaulted and so when that film came out and it got to South by Southwest we were actually in shock it was beautiful moment,” Fyffe Marshall says.
“I definitely feel like film is the best way to speak on taboos because you know, you’re in this room with people and film is the one time where you don’t have your guard up. I definitely think this is a way to introduce different topics and to crush taboos and to kill stereotypes. I prefer film because I know that film sees more people, could impact more people.”
This sentiment is also similarly shared by Harris as well.
“I think movies are a really good way of giving people a digestible way of learning about other people, or learning about the world, or learning about where they live. I think the important thing about filmmaking is that you can show an authentic perspective. ”
These independent projects helmed by black women and their production teams (Fyffe-Marshall’s Bird’s Eye View Productions and Harris’ Sugar Glass Films) are able to weave in powerful messages in a way that is not only creative but designed to spark conversations and important dialogue.
Creating these films isn’t without its challenges, however.
For many independents, securing funding for their projects in order to make them, is a major issue within the industry. Both filmmakers explained during the development of their films that money was an obstacle.
Another obstacle creatives within the Canadian industry have to contend with, but especially black women creatives, is getting the opportunity to break into the industry itself. It is very much still a white male dominated field. Over the course of four years, women of colour received a total of 47 contracts out of 3206 according to Women in View.
“It’s hard to navigate the Canadian industry as a woman much less a black woman. In Canada, it’s so hard to do that because the path isn’t set up for you,” Fyffe-Marshall admits.
For Fyffe-Marshall’s production team Bird’s Eye View Productions, made up of black women and women of colour, the goal is to forge a new path and make sure creative opportunities exist for them and people like them.
“And so, you really have to make a stand and show what you can do and that means making these films by yourself. That means making it with zero dollars and hoping that it will make an impact. I definitely think the challenges that you’re put up against is sexism and racism and finances, and you really just have to know that this is your passion, this is the route that you choose and you really have to sacrifice a lot of time and money.”
There is an abundance of talent within Canadian television and film, which isn’t being utilized to the benefit of the industry. There are countless stories willing and waiting to be told but opportunities are scarce and not as accessible to diverse creators.
What unfortunately ends up happening is that Canadian talent flock to the U.S. for more opportunities and the cycle repeats itself.
When discussing representation, it’s important to remember it is not just about meeting a certain quota on screen. It’s not uncommon to hear the word diversity, in fact, it’s almost a package deal. Diversity or the fact of promoting diversity, can often fall short if the end goal in mind is to have different people in the room, just for the sake of doing so
Diversity reflects “having a seat at the table” but that doesn’t always translate to having a voice to speak or being included.
“One of the things that I’m working on this year is squashing this word of diversity because it’s become this word of commodity,” Fyffe-Marshall says. “This word of diversity isn’t working because we’re getting one black person and or woman and or LGBTQ+ and it shouldn’t have to be like that. It shouldn’t just be one diverse person in the room because they don’t have the backup, they don’t have the might to be able to say ‘no we need change here.’”
“I don’t like to think in terms of diversity,” Kane explained at the time about his show, “because I just feel like that word has been co-opted for so many other things that on some level it’s lost its power. You know I watch so much television and I see people trying to you know ‘oh look we’re diverse’ and it’s just no you’re not. You’re just casting somebody who happens to be of colour in the show without giving their character a real cultural identity.”
This leaves much to be desired when a character is brought in as the “diversity hire” or becomes what is known as a “token hire.” Characters are left flat, two dimensional and not allowed to explore what makes them unique.
“And so, we need to get more nuanced characters on the screen,” says White. “I don’t think you can really do that with people who haven’t lived those experiences behind the scenes. So that requires more diverse creators, frankly because I feel like a lot of times like what’s going on now is like oh, there’s a push for diversity.”
Michelle Daly, the Senior Director of CBC Comedy notes that is something that comes up when shows are pitched about underrepresented groups.
“Just because you’ve written it in the pitch last minute that the character is from an underrepresented community it has to not just be written by a white person. You have to bring people from the communities that you want to represent into the fold early and meaningfully otherwise you don’t, as we talked about already, have that kind of authenticity to the project.”
Using Kim’s Convenience as an example, Daly explains that audiences don’t stay just because the series showcases a Korean Canadian family, but that they also stay because the content is good.
“My first and foremost thing is to make sure that the creative is really good, and that it feels true to the essence of what we’re trying to do with it.”
In 2019, CBC/Radio-Canada pledged a commitment for diversity to ensure people from different backgrounds are incorporated into creative positions such as “producer, director, writer, show-runner and lead performer” in both the organization’s scripted and factual content, according to the CBC website.
“For CBC as a national public broadcaster, it’s a top priority for us to draw on the whole kind of talent pool that is rich and diverse, you know, across the board. So, we need to tap into our big, huge, creative talent pools to better record reflect the country that we’re in,” Daly explains.
“The audience tells us what they want. And it’s up to us to listen. It’s up to us to be reflective and proactive in terms of seeing gaps in our offerings or certain demographics, whether it’s age demographic or other types of representation.”
One of the criticisms towards the CBC, and Canadian networks as a whole, is that for a long time the content being produced didn’t reflect certain demographics within the country, based on the type of programming offered.
As a result, many audiences turned to U.S. based streaming services to fill that gap, which is unfortunate because we deserve our own stories too.
One of CBC’s focuses now is promoting the country’s diverse forms of representation and getting content to audiences, especially in the 13–24 range. These groups are more likely to not consume traditional linear services, and usually access content online and on their devices.
Even with the launch of its own streaming service of CBC Gem, the corporation is still competing with multiple streaming platforms.
“In the U.S. context there’s an understanding that African Americans have their culture and way speaking slang and expression and you see it reflected so they’re constantly mirroring back, says Thompson. “In our context Black Canadians are not able to mirror the things that we consume. Especially if you’re predominantly watching streaming services what’s mirroring back to you is the African American experience so that makes it even more confusing. You’re doubly displaced.”
When asked about Black Canadians who feel their experiences may not be reflected, Daly says, “I hear that and I think I wish we could do more. I wish we had more room on the schedule to do more of everything. Yes, can we do better? I think we can do better. But it’s also about finding the show from black creators that people want to watch and that fits ultimately the CBC audience as well. But it’s challenging, you know, for us to get shows made at any given year, so we’re always trying to balance out the schedule to serve as many and be reflective of as many communities across Canada as possible.”
Daly does mention that there are current shows and ones in development, that aim to showcase black stories, including “Diggstown” on the drama side and “TallBoyz” on the comedy side.
Not Just A Black Show
One of the many things the television and film presented in this article do well is that their character’s blackness isn’t just the main focal point of the show. The characters are able to exist, free to explore their realities outside of their race. And while their race is important, it doesn’t become the end all be all.
Oftentimes when a show features a black character or is rooted in a black person’s experience (however that may look like because as established before, experiences aren’t the same across the board), viewers tend to write it off as ‘a black show’, something that they can’t relate to.
“It’s internalized. I think this idea that we can relate more easily to that [default white guy] character. But you have to unlearn it the same way that you learned to think that this is a relatable character,” Harris says.
“Like oh if I write like a black woman comedy nobody’s going to think it’s funny or nobody’s going to relate to this person, you have to unlearn that, you have to notice it’s a problem. I never noticed it was a problem because I’m able to relate to anybody. I’m watching a movie about any nationality, any gender, I can find how it relates to me. But there’s this disconnect when it comes to like oh it’s a black story that means it’s for black people and it’s like well I made a story about a girl and her hair. The bigger picture it’s about being left out, it’s about being different. Who can’t relate to that? But it’s like this idea that you can’t, it’s too hard to relate to.”
“When you have someone like Marcie Diggs on Diggstown,” says Ellen Vanstone, co-creator of Rookie Blue, now staff writer of Diggstown, “she’s black so then you think ‘oh it’s a “black show”’ and in some ways it is. But in other ways no. It’s just a TV show, it’s just not your usual white guy so it’s not only about her blackness like Floyd was saying on the panel. It’s about social injustice and the person who is the social justice warrior on the show just happens to be a black woman named Marcie Diggs.”
In writer’s rooms and production houses, authenticity is the gold standard. Incorporating the community portrayed is essential to the credibility and trueness of a show.
Vanstone says one of the first things the Diggstown team did “was go on a research trip” in the town, “talk to members of the Halifax community,” and “interview legal aid lawyers and activists” in order to craft some of their storylines.
The reason the stories and storylines work well in a successful show or film is because of the cohesion from the team of writers working behind the scenes to bring these stories to life.
“Writing for TV is much more collaborative which really I enjoy that a lot because you work together to break a story in the room with the other writers,” Vanstone says.
The writer’s rooms are where ideas are flushed out and input from a variety of viewpoints is key, especially when writing about unfamiliar communities in order to avoid generalizations and stereotypes. For Black stories and stories centered around different races, this process cannot be overlooked.
“I need to walk into writer’s rooms and see Asians and LGBTQ, white men, white women and black people, black women and black men, and we also need to talk about the fact that inclusion and diversity doesn’t disclude white people. Everyone should get a slice,” Fyffe-Marshall says.
Creating opportunities within the Industry
Representation does not only entail what we see on our screens and devices, but also just as important, is the make-up of the crew behind the scenes.
While Toronto remains one of North America’s best cities for film, gaining accessibility into the industry as a resident of the city remains a challenge. For many underrepresented and marginalized groups, the opportunities are not as prevalent.
In October 2019, Mayor John Tory and city council, along with several non-profit organizations announced a five-week partnership to help young black youth and adults gain access to film opportunities. The Production Assistant program was created and spearheaded by POV 3rd Street.
“The city’s initiative was directed towards helping to figure out an employment pathway for diverse and underrepresented groups from across the city, to be able to access jobs and economic opportunities in the TV and film industry,” says Biju Pappachan, Executive Director at POV 3rd Street.
“The cool thing about POV is we are a charity that was started by folks from the TV and film industry. At the end of the day, this partnership with the city is meant to provide open doors and provide more access to these folks into this industry because a lot of it is based on who you know, and what you know.”
Naphtali McKenly, the Program Operations Manager for POV 3rd Street, remembers being young in Toronto and not knowing where to turn to get his dreams off the ground. Being a part of POV 3rd Street, he says, is a way to “provide everybody with the information or the access that they need to be successful filmmakers, producers, or just working in the media field.”
“There are people who desire to work in these amazing careers and just do not either have the money for school, do not have the resources. And this is a free program that we provide that will allow people to explore and to find their talents. It’s such a beautiful thing because it’s like imagine wanting to be so successful and have this amazing drive behind you. But literally money is a factor, resources are a factor.”
Another organization dedicated to helping youth and creators from different backgrounds break into Toronto’s film industry and provide them with meaningful opportunities, is the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour TV and Film, also known as BIPOC TV and Film. The organization also partnered with POV 3rd Street for their PA program in order to improve employment for young people.
BIPOC TV and Film, created in 2012 by founder Nathalie Younglai began because Younglai “saw a need to form a community for others like her, who were also feeling isolated by the overall lack of representation of BIPOC in the industry” according to their website.
Shonna Foster, a Toronto director and producer, and also the head of Youth & Emerging Talent Initiatives for BIPOC TV and Film, spoke about the organization’s importance.
“I think that we’re an organization that is necessary to get BIPOC creatives interacting with certain show-runners and executives, writers, actors and talent to help facilitate their goals and their dreams of succeeding in this industry. We’re also very conscious about our ally-ship relationships because we don’t have those seats at the table, it’s important for us that we can tap into allies that do, and who do want to support seeing BIPOC creatives in this industry and taking up space. When we do that is when we start to see our representation, at least, that’s the hope.”
The grassroots organization BIPOC TV and Film hosts networking events, Q & A’s and panels throughout the year and “provides opportunities to secure employment in the television and film industry” according to the website.
The organization, Foster says, is “a collective of artists and industry personnel who do programming in the form of workshops and panels and events that support BIPOC creators, especially those that are emerging and or mid career.”
“I think that we, as an industry in order to see change, and for that to continue, we really need to support our BIPOC youth, young people and those who wish to have a career in this industry — whether they’re entering High School and want to pursue courses that are in directing, writing, acting more at a post secondary level. We need to be supporting these individuals so that they continue, in my opinion, if we don’t support that talent, then the issue of diversity or the problem will continue to exist.”
For Foster, aside from being a director and producer, giving back to the community is an important part of what she does.
Her once yearly workshops held in the Jane and Finch area in the past, were focused on teaching and mentoring young black girls in High School about Film and TV drama.
One of the things she heard from the group was that the images around them, whether in advertisements and media, didn’t look like them.
“I think of these young girls, not one of them could name me actually, in any workshop I taught whenever I would ask the question, like ‘name me a black Canadian director, actor, actress’ I never got an answer [aside from Drake]. In my opinion, I feel like if we saw complete representation on our screens and stories, like, man! It would just be beautiful, like we would be educated on each other in a way that is, is lacking.”
A tremendous and special thanks to everyone a part of this article.