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Where Are the Black Actors in Canadian Film and TV?

02/25/2014 05:09 EST | Updated 04/27/2014 05:59 EDT

It's Black History Month and when you think of Black History Month, one of the first things you think of is Canadian film and TV.

No? Well, okay, maybe it's just me. I always tend to think of things in the context of Canadian film and TV.

Canada is, of course, a contradiction -- as are all cultures and all peoples. And the pendulum swings back and forth in debates, depending on what one perceives as the orthodox mythology that must be debunked. Canada is a white country. Canada is a multicultural country. Canadians are perceived as inclusive, but are really racist. Canadians are perceived as racist, but really are inclusive.

All the above statements are true. And all are false.

Canada is, literally, one of the most multiracial/multicultural nations in the world. And yet you probably wouldn't get that impression watching a lot of Canadian movies and TV series.

You can look at some Canadian TV series and see a nonchalant pluralism you wouldn't see in a lot of countries' TV shows -- while you can watch other Canadian series where the cast is almost entirely white, with non-white actors conspicuously relegated to minor and peripheral roles.

But I prefer to approach things with a carrot-and-stick attitude. Rather than just ball your fist and rage against iniquities, better to applaud the progress and how far things have come -- and then point out there's further to go.

When it comes to Canadian film and TV, things have come a long way -- but it can also feel like two steps forward, one step back. Strangely, Canadian movies actually seem to be worse than TV series when it comes to multicultural, or "rainbow," casting.

I say strangely because often the argument producers make against non-white casting (after first insisting they don't believe in "political correctness") is that it's not them -- it's their audience who is resistant to unconventional casting. Yet Canadian TV series, which are determinedly mainstream and commercial, tend to have more diverse casts than Canadian movies which are "artistic" and, supposedly, driven solely by the whims of the filmmakers. (Interestingly, my impression is live theatre is far more open and colour-blind when it comes to casting decisions).

My perspective on this (as a white guy) perhaps arises from my interest in Canadian culture and identity as it's depicted (or not depicted) on screen. As a guy who has grumbled about Canadian movies and TV shows that often pretend they are American, I can't help but be sensitive to the perspective of, say, a black person who feels there is a lack of black actors on screen.

Within the biz, you'll find lots of filmmakers who will happily insist that they believe in pluralism and colour-blind casting -- and then will explain, without self-consciousness, why their particular film should be exempt. It's a family drama -- so all the characters had to be one colour. It's set in a small town -- not a cosmopolitan big city. It's a satire of high society -- so all the leads had to be white because I'm making fun of racism. There's always an individual reason for an individual project (similarly they will insist they support Canadian cultural identity in theory -- but their movie had to be set in New York). But in order to address a problem you have decide if the problem exists.

I've thought an interesting experiment for those who insist that everything's A-okay, and casting is based on a colour-blind meritocracy, would be this: I'd like a Canadian actor, a white successful actor (the sort who generally gets his or her name in the opening credits), I'd like such an actor to ask themselves when was the last time they played a scene with a non-white actor? I don't mean when did a non-white actor say, "The Doctor will see you now, Mr. Smith." I mean when was the last time you had a meaty scene with a non-white actor? If you're having trouble answering that -- well, maybe it's something to think about.

Let's take it one step further:

When was the last time you played a scene with a non-white actor, looked at your role/lines and their role/lines, and said: "Man, they have such a great part -- I wish I had their part." I'm sure you play such scenes with white actors all the time where you grudgingly felt they had the better, more nuanced part. And if you can't remember the last time you were jealous of a non-white actor -- well, maybe that's something to think about, too.

But as I say, progress is made.

Currently Bravo TV is airing a Canadian cop drama called 19-2 in which the top billed actor is black. Thirty years ago I don't suppose the idea of casting a black actor in such a role would've even been the glimmer of a possibility (I think the first Canadian TV series to star a black actor was 1991's U.S.-Canada co-production, Street Justice, starring American actor Carl Weathers -- an imported "name" star). Now it's seen as not so big a deal, and for a role that didn't even have to be black (it's a remake of a French-language series in which I think the original lead was white).

Now the interesting thing about 19-2 is that I'm still on the fence. It trots out pretty familiar cop drama dilemmas and archetypes -- but I'm warming to it. Still, one thing I will give it is the performances of Adrian Holmes (who's black) and Jared Keeso (who's white) as the main characters. Yet funnily enough, this is pretty much Holmes' first shot at the centre seat (at least that I've seen him in). Now Keeso, too, hasn't had too many big showcases -- but he's a decade younger than Holmes. And Keeso did get to headline eight hours of television starring as sports commentator Don Cherry across no less than two TV mini-series!

Now, obviously, apples and oranges. You can't fairly compare the career arcs of two different actors and expect them to follow the same path. The business is full of actors who struggle for years, then land a starring role mid-career, and others who luck out early. I mean, Don Cherry is white, so of course the role's going to provide an opportunity for a white actor. Obviously if there had been a mini-series about a black protagonist, then maybe Holmes would've had his shot earlier.

"Oh, wait," I hear you say, the cobwebs falling away, "that's kind of what you're getting at, ain't it?"

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