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Charles Officer scores big

“I want to prove to myself that I can do it all.” — Charles Officer

by Daniel Glassman

Charles Officer is one of the most versatile directors in Canada today. His work spans successful efforts in indie drama, episodic TV and documentaries. Born in Toronto to a Jamaican mother and British father, Officer’s works have often focused on the lives of black Canadians dealing with their unequal status in a liberal society that is still overwhelmingly structured around the desires of a white majority. His features—the drama Nurse.Fighter.Boy (2009) and docs Mighty Jerome (2010) and Unarmed Verses (2015), which won the best Canadian Feature Documentary Award at Hot Docs 2017—are marked by a singular vision, which is less an aesthetic than a distinct and evolving set of concerns. His work on television, ranging from Da Kink in My Hair (2008) to 21 Thunder (2017), shows a sure hand and adaptable professionalism that is making his progress swift in Canadian dramas.

     Reflecting on challenges that have emerged because of the changing state of the industry, Officer says that, “I think it’s reinforced a real questioning of how badly you want to direct. Do you really want to be a person of colour who’s trying to tell certain kinds of stories within this space? One of my mentors, [the acting coach] Jacqueline McClintock, always said that, ‘It doesn’t get easier; it just becomes more possible.’ So I never expected it to get easier. I had expected it to actually get narrower, as less and less folks are going to have certain opportunities.

     “I realise that I can’t just be local. I have to think internationally. I should maybe put my British passport to work. How do I expand and look at other places outside of this country? Although I am a citizen here, and want to contribute to the landscape of Canadian work, I don’t think it’s ever going to get easier. But how does it affect inspiration? I think it reinforces how badly you want it, or you kind of fall away.”

     Officer’s early works, like Nurse.Fighter.Boy, focused on characters’ dramas against a backdrop of race and poverty, but more recently, in Unarmed Verses, about a group of youth in Toronto’s Villaways community housing project, and the CBC doc The Skin We’re In, about outspoken black journalist Desmond Cole, he has become more explicit in addressing racial imbalance. It may be Officer’s most pointed work yet, but it almost didn’t happen.

     “[Cole] actually said he wouldn’t make this film with anybody from the CBC,” says Officer. After being asked to make the doc, which met with Cole’s approval, he admits “I actually backed away from the project because I felt I was too busy. Then CBC said, ‘Well, we’re not going to do the project,’ and Des’ reply was, ‘I’m not going to do the project.’ Then I felt really guilty that this project wouldn’t happen.” Officer and Cole didn’t know each other personally at the time, but had heard of each other. They grew close quickly once Officer signed on. “I’m a little bit older than him,” says Officer, “but we’ve become like brothers.”

     The 2014 shooting of Mike Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson was a turning point for Cole. In The Skin We’re In, Cole talks about how his journalism changed afterwards, becoming much more outspoken and political. The magazine article that launched Cole to fame, the Toronto Life piece “The Skin I’m In,” came out in 2015, with the provocative teaser, “I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times—all because I’m black.” Cole’s piece renders racism personal and psychological in ways akin to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, filtering the often-depersonalised discourse around racism through everyday experience: Cole is carded by police while walking a white friend home; girls run away from him when he gets off the bus; bouncers kick him out of clubs or don’t let him in at all. In a Toronto that likes to imagine itself “post-racial,” Cole’s piece struck a nerve, catapulting him to celebrity status as a public intellectual.

     Of course, the shooting was a turning point for many people. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, launched in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, became a movement that gained international prominence in the protests it organised in the aftermath of the Brown murder. Black artists from Beyoncé to Kendrick Lamar to Raoul Peck have foregrounded race in ways they never had before.

     Officer is another one who became newly politicised by it. Though race had always been an undertone in his work, going all the way back to Nurse.Fighter.Boy, The Skin We’re In is by far his most outspoken. He had to fight for that, of course, challenging the everyday racism that colours people’s perceptions. “[CBC’s] notes were, we need more hand-holding and we need to soften people into this issue, and we think it’s a little too hard for our main-line audience,” says Officer. “And I’m like, ‘Who’s your main-line audience?’” Here in Canada, we imagine that we are somehow immune to racism, but a groundswell of activism by the likes of Cole, Officer and Black Lives Matter is working hard to disabuse us of that notion.

     “What’s the difference between the Mike Brown incident and the Andrew Loku incident?” Officer is talking about the 2015 police killing of Toronto resident Andrew Loku, a refugee and father of five from South Sudan with a history of mental illness. Though it galvanised the Toronto chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking major protests outside Toronto’s police headquarters, the incident is not nearly as well known as its American counterparts. To wit, it does not have a Wikipedia article. “Like really, what’s the difference?” remarks Officer with an ironic tone. “Not everyone in this country or even in this city knows about the Andrew Loku killing, but they know about Mike Brown…We in this country don’t pay attention to what’s going on here.”

     Ferguson, South Sudan, Toronto: the story that has been emerging in the reinvigorated interest in race in the Black Lives Matter era is international in scope. The Skin We’re In ventures abroad to Ferguson to meet with friends of Mike Brown including poet Marcellus Buckley. “Often the CBC was like, ‘We don’t need a scene in Ferguson. We don’t need to go to the United States. Let’s just keep it all in Canada.’ No—let’s go to the United States,” says Officer. “A border doesn’t take away or eliminate racist behaviour. It has no borders. It’s something that people are contending with all over.”

     The film also goes to the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, where Cole talks about his parents, both born in Sierra Leone, and to Red Deer, Alberta, where Cole was born. “There’s a scene where we sit outside of the first house that he remembers that his parents came to,” Officer recalls. “It depressed him when he arrived. He felt that, ‘This isn’t anything like what I thought it was like.’ And the scene kind of fell apart, because he didn’t even want to get out of the car… He was so uncomfortable and emotionally couldn’t bring himself to go to the space.” Officer ended up cutting much of that display of vulnerability.

     Another of the CBC’s notes, says Officer, critiqued that representation. “They said, ‘We don’t learn anything about him…’ I’m like, ‘Well, what do you need to know about him?’” The choice to keep the focus on the issues and not on Cole was deliberate. “He’s inquisitive; he’s out in the community; he’s providing space and listening to what people have to say,” says Officer. “I was really thinking that, because often people are trying to discredit him as a journalist or question that, I didn’t want to present anyone with an arsenal of personal facts.

     “It was really a choice to protect him as well,” Officer goes on, “and allow for him to speak and have a certain space and be more direct, because I’ve never dealt with this subject head-on like that. It was important that we got little things about him, but you do get a sense of how he feels about this, because people want to call him a guru—like he’s our guru, he’s our guy, he’s supposed to teach us something new—and he doesn’t want to be that.”

     That sensitivity to the person behind the persona is pure Officer. He’s political, sure, but his big interest is in people. The linking of those scales—the human and the system—drives his best work.

     Officer’s juggling of those themes might arise out of his unique path to becoming a director. Many filmmakers are determined from a young age to make films; others try other arts or roles within film, like acting or writing, before getting there; others come at it from the humanities, journalism or activism. Officer’s background is completely different.

     “Hockey was my trajectory, was my life—it was my first obsession, and the first thing that I committed myself fully to,” says Officer. “When I was around 16, they were looking at me to go to American schools—Michigan State, Lake Superior State, St. Lawrence, Ohio.

     “I was drafted by the Sudbury Wolves and went to this training camp,” he goes on. “My mom is completely not a hockey person; she’s a Jamaican woman; she didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And she’s Jewish. She’s this black Jewish woman who married a Seventh Day Adventist man from England, and she would always observe the Sabbath. I started playing hockey, and you play on the Sabbath—you play whenever. She said, ‘You go play,’ so I’d go and play, and I got obsessed with this game.

     “When I got drafted to the OHL [Ontario Hockey League], I applied to OCAD [Ontario College of Art and Design, now OCADU] as well,” recalls Officer. “They called my mom on the intercom phone in Sudbury with all these dudes, and they’re like, ‘He’s made the team, and we want him to stay.’ Her first question was, ‘Where’s he going to go to school?’ And they said, ‘Uh, well, he’ll go to Laurentian University,’ and she wants to know, ‘Well, what will he study?’ ‘Oh, we’ll get him into some sports medicine and some kinesiology’—they’re just Mickey Mousing it. She says to them, ‘Do you know he just got into one of the best art schools in the country?’ I’m like, ‘Don’t say art to these hockey guys!’ I’m sitting there knowing, “Oh man, now they think I’m this flake,” and whatever. Anyway, she says, ‘You’re coming home.’ So I got on the bus and I went home.”

     Instead, he went to go play in England—he had a passport courtesy of his British-born father, and the presence of family and his native language made it more inviting than offers from places like Germany. After a year there, the NHL’s Calgary Flames drafted Officer. “I found myself in Salt Lake City, Utah—which is so funny because I went to Sundance there years later, but my first introduction to that city was that that was where Calgary’s farm team was. I was thinking, ‘Whoa, this is a trip. My mom has no idea where I am; no one can see what I’m seeing.’ I was the only black person. It was so hard, and I was young, and I was wondering, ‘Will this be my life?’”

     An injury—which Officer thinks, in retrospect, was as psychological as physical—prompted him to rethink his trajectory. Officer ended up at OCAD for graphic design. Nevertheless, he says, “Sport has always been something special to me. I’ve learned so much about discipline and sacrifice—all these clichés that you hear about, but it’s so true—how to really give a shit about someone and put someone else first. I think that’s definitely been a tool that has helped me in filmmaking.”

     He recalls, “My last year at OCAD I auditioned for some things, like YTV shows, and I thought, ‘This is kind of fun; I should take an acting class.’ And then, just walking through the halls at OCAD, on the board with all the different advertisements there was one for an acting class. I took the whole flyer.” Officer hesitated for over a year before signing on. “Finally I get to Jacqueline McClintock’s class. I walk in and Sarah Polley’s there, Scott Speedman is there. That’s where I met Ingrid Veninger. It was crazy. David Wellington. Clement Virgo was in that class. It was nuts. Jacqueline had all the top amazing actors. But I had no clue who they were!

     “I wrote my first short, showed it to her and said, ‘I need a director.’ And Jacqueline said, ‘No, you have to direct it. You’re smart; you’ll figure it out.’ But I approached three different directors instead. My little six-page script, one guy was telling me I needed 350 grand. One guy took it and rewrote it to a half hour. Another person had this other vision for it, and I realised, ‘This is crazy.’ I ended up making When Morning Comes, and that’s what got me into TIFF in 2000. That’s what started everything. But it was Jacqueline who said, ‘You’ve got to do it. Only you know this story.’”

     Evidence of Officer’s circuitous route is plain to see in his films. Anybody familiar with Officer’s work knows that sports play a large role. Nurse.Fighter.Boy features acclaimed actor-director Clark Johnson as a boxer; he’s made documentaries about football player Chuck Ealey and runner Harry Jerome; and he’s directed three episodes of the CBC series 21 Thunder about an under-21 soccer team. “People are constantly approaching me about sports stuff,” he says. “‘Oh my god, you played hockey? We’ve got this project…’” But he doesn’t feel trapped by that reputation. “I do think that there’s so much drama built into sport: You need to get there—what happens when you get there? You need to stay there. Losing money. The wives or the women not getting a fair shake, and all the dedication and time that you put into it. I do really love sport and what it does for the human spirit.”

     Officer’s Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story (2012) follows the acclaimed black quarterback’s return to his hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio with his daughter Jael. It was a deeply segregated town, divided by the railroad tracks where Chuck would throw stones at trains to practice his aim. Jael and Chuck recount the story of a 1962 heat wave and a whites-only pool. To beat the heat, black kids went to go swim in a quarry; there, one child, Chuck’s cousin Eugene McKinley, was pulled under by a current and drowned. Protests ensued, and a group of kids climbed over the fence and jumped in the pool.

     Ealey rose to fame as a quarterback with a three-year undefeated career at the University of Toledo. He was passed over in the NFL draft after he let it be known that he only wanted to play quarterback at a time when no blacks had starting positions in that role in the U.S. pro ranks. Instead, Ealey signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL, winning a Grey Cup in his first year and having a successful career through the 1970s, which ended with an injury in 1978.

     The film is an example of how Officer makes “hired gun” projects his own, even when following a prescribed TV-doc format. “I needed to find my in-point with him,” he says. As Jael notes early in the film, Ealey is a reserved person. “When you’re doing films about athletes everyone says, ‘You’ve gotta crack him,’” Officer says. “And I ask, ‘What do you mean by that? You just wanna see him cry? Or do you really want to get to know this man and why he’s been successful?’” To that end, Officer pursued the father-daughter angle. “The strategy was to get her involved in pulling some things out personally, because he’d talk to his daughter differently than he’d talk to me.” She ended up as a co-conspirator on the film.

     Officer’s other way in was the political-historical angle. At one point Chuck and Jael look at an Underground Railroad route that followed the river that runs through Portsmouth, Ohio. Officer found parallels of that in Ealey’s story of moving to Canada and finding success there. “I loved that angle, kind of giving Canada some props for giving somebody that otherwise wouldn’t have had that opportunity to do what they were meant to do,” says Officer.

     Officer’s first feature documentary was Mighty Jerome, about the controversial B.C.-born runner Harry Jerome. He recalls being influenced by Todd Haynes’ inventive Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007). In similar fashion—if not quite so aesthetically radical yet—Officer invites cross-pollination between his métiers. “[Making documentaries] allows me to actually see better how fiction should be,” he says. And it goes both ways: “My docs, I sort of plan them like fiction. I don’t write scripts of what people are going to say, but I think of the connectors.”

     In Mighty Jerome, he plotted documentary moments by confronting people with mementoes as if they were in a museum. “Wendy Jerome, his former wife, who was one of the first people I met on my development journey, took me to her basement and pulled out these eight big photo albums of everything that she’d kept on him as well as boxes of his shoes, his running blocks—even his blanket from Oregon. I said, ‘You have an art gallery here. We have to display this somehow.’ So I curated and blew up the images and designed all the text. I set one up in Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto, and no one I was going to interview knew. They’d get the address, and when they walked into the space they were immediately affected. They were looking at things, seeing a picture of themselves when they were younger and reacting, and we were just rolling film. I remember his mother in her wheelchair looking at images of her son, and she just started to weep. Eventually, I had to interrupt her to say, ‘We have to actually work now,’ because she was just going through and looking at everything.” In the end, not a ton of the interviews made it into the doc, but it helped to give Officer a sense of Jerome and the people he was dealing with, and from that came the structure of the film.

     Officer’s first—and, to date, only—feature drama, the Canadian Film Centre-produced Nurse.Fighter.Boy, is more obviously stylish than his docs. Nominated for 10 Genie Awards, it’s a strong debut that marshals lo-fi aesthetics and a strong sense of place to tell a moving and very particular story about the relationships between a boxer, a nurse with sickle-cell anemia and her son in the east end of Toronto. It’s terrain that Officer was deeply familiar with: his sister had sickle-cell anemia, and he grew up in the neighbourhood the film is set in. The camaraderie among the boxers, which is shown in opposition to the underhanded ruthlessness of a fight promoter, is also one of the dramatic centres of the film and underscores Officer’s ongoing interest in sports.

     “I write about things from my experience and what I know,” says Officer, “but I think certain projects find you. I wasn’t seeking the Chuck Ealey story; I definitely wasn’t seeking the Jerome story. It found me, and I found a connection with it. Even with Desmond Cole, it kind of came through other folks—I was happy with him just being a writer; I didn’t immediately feel that here’s a guy I have to jump up and make a film with.”

     Unarmed Verses, Officer’s most recent NFB documentary film, is another project that clearly became personal to him. As the film begins, we see a development proposal sign—ubiquitous in gentrifying 21st century Toronto—in the Northeast Toronto housing project Villaways. Francine, the film’s 14-year-old central subject, expresses in voiceover her sadness and frustration with it: “They keep telling us they’re revitalizing it for us. It’s not really for us. It’s sad to see all of it go away.”

     This intrusion of politics and capitalism into personal space is a signal aspect of contemporary life and is a large part of what is recalibrating Officer’s cinema. Not to say that he ever had any illusions to the alternative, but he seems to be realizing that he can’t make personal dramas without grappling with larger systems of power. Just a minute later, he shows us some roughhousing boys and then the security camera watching them.

     “It’s very special to me, that film,” says Officer. There’s a scene in which Francine studies Edgar Allan Poe, surrounded by boisterous family members: “When I started filming that day with her, she said, ‘I just have some homework to do,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, cool,’ and she pulls out this freaking book. It took me a second, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Is this a joke?’ I certainly wasn’t reading this at her age. I wouldn’t even be breaking it down the way she was doing it—the way she just got into it and that sort of public solitude.”

     Unarmed Verses follows Francine in a class of kids learning to sing, rap, produce and make beats. Francine is shy but, in classic fashion, is coaxed out of her shell by the teachers. It’s a tough film that shows a side of Toronto we don’t often see. Unarmed Verses shows us poverty, displacement and broken institutions in a society in which the only white people are the ones on TV. Officer has deep respect for Francine, with whom he has stayed in touch as a friend and mentor. Linking the political and personal again, Officer tells us that to him, “This is what a black life mattering looks like.”

     Officer’s TV work got off to a bad start. “There was a little show called Hotel Babylon,” he recalls, “and I was involved in the pilot. After that experience I didn’t feel good about television—because of who I was working with. They just wanted the project for themselves. I think what I did then was I just kind of put all my negative energy on TV: that’s the way people operate in that space.”

     With a bit of help, Officer warmed up to TV again. “Da Kink in My Hair came around,” he recalls, “and I trusted those individuals. I was lucky there and had Tim Southam and certain folks who said, ‘Yeah, come shadow us.’ They were nurturers and showed me a different perspective about television. And then David Wellington, when I was acting on 11th Hour, he was a guy who I watched, and Steve DiMarco. They were guys who had a demeanour about them and they would say, ‘Come and watch this.’ I don’t think I would have done Rookie Blue and Saving Hope if it wasn’t for David Wellington constantly reaching out. I knew that a lot of directors wanted to get in there, so I said, at this point, it’s hard to get an opportunity—I have to do this.”

     His most recent TV work has been three episodes for 21 Thunder. “I directed on Saving Hope,” recalls Officer. “I did Malcolm MacRury’s episode. He’s a showrunner on 21 Thunder and one of the writers on that, so he was interested in us working together, which I was so grateful for.” Officer talks about gaining the confidence of the cast and crew by finding mistakes, like plot holes. “I think it’s [a sign] that you’ve really taken in the material. I try to find something that they missed. Not just a typo, but some connector. It tells them that you’re paying attention and that the material is in good hands.”

     It was an incredible amount of work, but he loved it. “It was a very ambitious show, all on location, and they didn’t get the budget that they wanted. But they still went forward, so the schedule was just insane. I had a half hour to shoot a scene—there was no scene in any episode that would take a half hour to shoot. Like, no. So it was like these fudged sort of numbers for the day—like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re on a 12-hour day.’ Actually, no—it’s 14. It’s 15. Let’s get real.” Plus, there was the schedule: “Usually you have seven days per episode. I shot all three in 18 days.”

     The actors presented another challenge. Their experience ranged from first-timers to… Colm Feore. “They all need different things,” says Officer. “It was amazing; I think they’re an incredible group and really talented, but there’s definitely room for improvement. They’re being pushed in ways they’ve never been pushed before…” As for Feore, Officer is effusive: “He just brings a whole other level. It’s crazy because they were trying to get a name actor for that role, so they moved all those days that I was shooting with him in prison to the end of the entire shoot. I already had my episodes cut with these holes in it. Colm came in and I worked with him for three days straight. He’s incredible. Everything he’s in, he lights it up. It’s a real difference when you work with a pro who’s so invested and thinks and is fluid and easy to communicate with.”

     Officer is always looking for new opportunities to challenge himself and grow as an artist, as a person and as part of the communities he’s in. “I was at an acting class on the weekend,” he says. “But not because I want to show off my acting skills. Being around actors, they see that I’m there, that I’m actually watching how they’re developing. I’m learning new ways of communicating with them. It really informs the writing too—just watching them and how they behave and hearing about character and how you can get into developing character.

     “I still feel like—God willing and the creek don’t rise—my best work is still to come. I’m not even close to being done yet.”


Daniel Glassman writes about film and music. He lives in Toronto.

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