A Canadian film editorial brought to you by The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV

RACE in Canadian film and TV:
Or: “I’m not a Nazi, but my best friend is”.


To this verdant country they came from all around…
~”The Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, Gordon Lightfoot

This essay has ended up being rather long and rambling, and I’ve also kind of veered back and forth from some rather extreme -- some might argue seeming contradictory -- points. But in a way, that’s because I’m just trying to toss these ideas out there, both the good and the bad. What conclusions you ultimately draw from them…is up to you.

And, yeah, I suspect this is the essay I’m going to get it in the neck over. Heck, I’ve occasionally received some pretty vituperative responses over past essays on topics that were pretty trivial and innocuous. And this week we’re delving into an already loaded and primed topic. But what the heck. You only live once, eh?

Recently CTV aired the TV movie, Playing for Keeps. Inspired by a true story, it concerned the bitter custody battle over a child resulting from an affair between a white, single mother and a black, married, basketball player. The case became significant when, after a lower court awarded the mother custody, an appeals court instead ruled the child belonged with the father. The reason? Race. There was no question, apparently, of the mother’s competency or capability in looking after the child, but the appeals court decided the black-looking child would be better raised by a black parent. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court of Canada where the decision was, once more, reversed and custody returned to the mother. I remember when the real case was reported in the news and, like most people, I was somewhat appalled by the first appeals court decision -- at least, like most people who don’t collected glossy, full colour coffee table books detailing The Planes of the Luftwaffe.

I say that to make it clear that the topic of Playing for Keeps was legitimate subject matter for a movie, and the movie itself was well done and well acted.

But it also got me thinking about a topic I’ve been meaning to tackle, on and off, for a while, but haven’t really jumped into. And that is…race. Specifically, race and its place in Canadian film and TV.

See, although I liked Playing for Keeps, it’s perhaps noteworthy that it’s one of the few times a TV movie has featured black actors in prominent roles -- and they were, essentially, the “villains” (not that the movie was really trying to simplify things into hero/villain roles…entirely).

What you tend to notice is that there still seems to be a rather limited amount of roles and opportunities for non-white actors in Canada. Don’t get me wrong -- compared to twenty years ago, the wealth of parts is extraordinary. But still…

With Playing for Keeps, the basketball star was played by Roger Cross -- an actor who’s been kicking around for a while. Because he’s (sort of) big, black and with a deep voice, Cross has generally been cast as stern authority figures or tough guys, cops and alien warriors and the like -- in supporting roles. So it was actually a surprise in the earlier part of Playing for Keeps (before the relationship turns sour) to see him playing…a rather affable everyman, doing domestic scenes, vulnerable scenes. Showing a range that I hadn’t really seen him demonstrate before. While his wife was played by Enuka Okuma…actually, I can’t remember the last time I saw Okuma in a Canadian production (other than re-runs of Sue Thomas: FBEye!)

This might seem an odd complaint as there have been past TV movies featuring predominantly non-white casts -- Dragon Boys, Doomstown, One Heart Broken into Song, Indian Summer, etc. -- in movies specifically about non-white/ethnic characters and themes.

And that’s the catch.

Producers seem happy to cast non-white actors if the part explicitly requires a non-white actor…and white actors get, well, everything else. So an actor like African immigrant Bayo Akinfemi is considered good enough to land leading roles playing African refugees in a big budget mini-series like Human Cargo, sharing billing with heavy weights like Kate Nelligan, Nicholas Campbell and Cara Pifko or to guest star in The Border (receiving Gemini nominations both times)…but doesn’t seem to get considered to play a best friend, or an accountant.

Again, harping on Playing for Keeps, the heroine’s friend was well played by Indo-Canadian actress, Agam Darshi, which seemed like a nice bit of pluralistic casting. Except that even here there was one scene which kind of demanded the character be non-white.

Most roles in most movies and TV shows are pretty generic and could be played by anyone, not just a white actor. Yet you can watch an awful lot of hours of Canadian film and television -- and I have -- and barely see a non-white face in the background, let alone a speaking part, let alone a “featured role”, let alone a co-star…let alone the star.

Nor is this an exclusive problem to Canada -- in Hollywood and England similar accusations could be made (just saw a picture promoting the new “realistic” US cop show, Southland -- of the eight actors featured in the picture, only one was non-white). Now, as I say, the casting opportunities have altered dramatically just in the last few years (a few years ago one wouldn’t be saying the roles are limited…we’d be saying the roles don’t exist, period). Which is maybe why I’m writing this…because I am hopeful. There are big cracks appearing in the racial casting wall, and maybe all it needs is a few more whacks to bring it down completely.

Putting aside any moral/philosophical/political ideas for a moment, I come at the issue partly just as someone who’s watched a lot of Canadian movies and TV shows. And in all those hours seated before a flickering screen, you develop a certain interest in actors. As such, the lack of non-white roles is too bad…’cause there are a lot of talented non-white actors out there. There are a lot of talented white actors who don’t get as much work as I’d like to see, too. That’s the sad thing about the movie/TV biz…there are more good actors than there are good roles (and the good roles don‘t always go to the best actors).

A pluralistic cast also makes sense aesthetically. You wouldn’t make a movie where everyone wore the same clothes, or had the same colour hair. So why would you want to cast a movie where everyone has the same skin colour?

But there’s also the realist angle. Canada is a multi-racial, immigrant nation. If you walk around downtown Toronto, for instance, literally every second face you see will probably be non-white. Granted, ethnic demographics vary (a rural small town might be mainly white). But, honestly, is that ethnic stew what you see when you turn on Being Erica or Flashpoint?

If you flip on a radio or a non-fiction TV show, there’ll be media personalities like Peter Mansbridge and Lloyd Robertson…but there’ll also be names like Jian Ghomeshi, Wei Chen, Ian Hanomansing, Sook-Yin Lee, Aamer Haleem, or even Joe Schlesinger and George Stroumboulopoulos. But is that the Canada being reflected in our fiction, as we export movies and TV shows to the world? No, we have characters named Erica Strange, Greg Parker, and the feuding Henrys and McGregors.

If people outside Canada sometimes seem to perceive Canada as a white, monolithic nation, is that because that’s the vision Canadian filmmakers present to the world?

The commitment to ethnic diversity seems to ping pong back and forth from generation to generation. A few years ago, CBC’s Street Legal was so committed to reflecting ethnic diversity, that even though its actors had sturdy Anglo-Saxon names like Johnson and Peterson, they played characters named Tchbanian and Robinovitch. Heck, Canada’s first true TV hero in the ‘60s was…Wojeck. Today, Flashpoint stars Enrico Colantoni…playing a guy named Greg Parker.

(Hollywood also goes through multicultural phases: in the 1970s, televisions featured series called Columbo, Banacek, Delvecchio, Petrocelli-- not the sort of character names you generally see headlining US TV shows today).

Like with US series, most Canadian TV series these days try to include one or two non-white actors in the regular cast. But it often feels a bit like a quota to be filled, but not exceeded. So in Being Erica, Erica’s best friend is black…but that seems to be the only person of colour in her circle of friends. And since they share the same circle, it means her black friend…doesn’t seem to have any black friends!

And the irony is having a non-white actor in your regular cast seems to obscure the conspicuous lack of non-white actors in the guest starring cast (something I’d long noticed in US series, as well). Yet over the course of a series’ run, there are far more guest starring roles than regular roles.

Now, things in some ways aren’t bad. For all the preponderance of mainly white roles and TV shows, Canada has seen its share of series with a large, even dominant, non-white cast over the years.

And, indeed, that reflects the paradox of Canadian film/TV and race. Because in some ways, Canadian TV can be more pluralistic than, say, American TV which often tended to define racial diversity in largely black/white terms. I mean, has Hollywood ever produced something comparable to North of 60 -- a network drama set on an Indian reserve? Or the (short-lived) Jinnah on Crime TV movie whodunits? Or some critics pointed out that when the CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie premiered, it was followed shortly by a US sitcom, Aliens in America -- but whereas in Little Mosque the Muslims are the main characters, in Aliens in America, the story was told from the POV of a white, Christian family, with the Muslim sympathetic…but “alien”. Even Intelligence -- with black actor Klea Scott starring in a generic/white drama -- might not have too many parallels in US series.

In fact, though in recent years Hollywood has started to expand their depiction of racial pluralism, for a long time, it was mainly white/black -- so when Street Legal cast Indo-Canadian actress Pamela Sinha as a secretary (at a time when Hollywood would paint up white guys to play Indians in movies like Short Circuit), or Side Effects had Asian-Canadian actor Jovanni Sy as one of the stars, those Canadian series were reflecting a racial diversity most American series of the time, weren’t.

And Canadian motion pictures can be the same. Even as I note that you can watch an awful lot of Canadian movies without seeing a non-white face even in the background. The flip side is Canadian movies that reflect a racial pluralism that is unusual even by Hollywood standards. Movies like the Art of Woo which was the spiritual descendant of the kind of old Hollywood movie that might’ve starred Rock Hudson and Doris Day -- except the leading lady was Asian-Canadian, the leading man Native Indian, and his father played by a white guy. Interestingly, the filmmakers most often behind these mosaic casting choices are, themselves, non-white.

But it can still seem for every movie or TV show that boasts an ethnic diversity, there’s a dozen other projects where all parts automatically go to a white actors…unless specifically required to be non white.

Funnily enough, productions with no non-white actors can almost be less troubling then ones with a non-white part…depending on the part. I really liked the movie, Bon Cop, Bad Cop -- but it was an awfully white film, no denying it. But in one of the deleted scenes, there’s a scene set at a police station with a black actress. So, I thought, they did cast a non-white actor…she just ended up on the cutting room floor. Except…as the scene progresses, a bad guy starts hurling racist remarks at the woman, enraging our (white) hero who valiantly defends her by beating up said villain. In other words, they only cast her to show what a heroic, liberal guy the white hero was and, once that purpose was served, they quickly ushered her off the soundstage. It reminded me of a similar incident in the movie For the Moment, a wartime romantic drama with an all white cast in which a black guy shows up…just long enough to be assaulted by racists so our white hero can defend him.

Another factor in the whole white/non-white casting issue relates to the very notion of cultural identity.

For example, Native Indians have often been viewed as a part of the Canadian identity in a way that they haven’t been in the US. In fact, what’s curious is how many Native Indians even in American pop culture…are actually Canadian in origin, from Jay Silverheels to Chief Dan George to Buffy St. Marie to modern figures like Adam Beach, Graham Greene and others.

Native Indian characters were always more ubiquitous in Canadian movies and TV than they seemed to be in American ones, and often in less stereotyped roles. And this perhaps relates to my point about how for a time, the ethnic “face” in Canadian film & TV was different than the American one. Native Indians, East Indians, Asians…vs. black. That was good for actors of those ethnicities, though bad for black Canadian actors. For a long time, black actors got most of their work in Canadian films…playing Americans (a similar problem plagued black British actors until recently). Black Canadian actor Clark Johnson (now a successful Hollywood director!) once remarked ruefully that he didn’t quite fit a casting director’s image of a fur trader!

But if in their desire to reflect a uniquely “Canadian” multiculturalism, filmmakers were kind of shutting the door on black actors…now the reverse seems to be happening. As if maybe afraid to seem too tritely Canadian (“Oh, an Indian…how cliched!”), or keeping their eye on the Prize of an American distribution deal, which means making Canada look as American as possible, it now seems in Canada that, like in the US, most of the non-white roles go to black actors. Series like Flashpoint and Intelligence present a Canada comprised mainly of white people, with a black minority. Good for black actors, bad for other non-white actors. And when I say “good”…I mean better than bad, rather than good good.

Which leads us into considering that other minority -- the non-visible minority. Some Canadian series make efforts to look outside non-WASP archetypes (the heroine of Being Erica is Jewish), but most don‘t. In an episode of Corner Gas, for instance, they even drew attention to the large proportion of Ukrainians in western Canada…but none of the regulars are actually supposed to be Ukrainian. But playing around with ethnicity is part of how stories are kept fresh -- every plot has been told, it’s in the details that stories become new again. Maybe instead of Wild Roses being about the McGregors and the Henrys, it could’ve been about the McGregors and the Ivanchuks! Frankly, I think it’s too bad when actors with accents, like Helene Joy (Australian), have to mask their accents to get work. Oh, sure, when Joy was cast as the “typical” Canadian in An American in Canada it made sense for her to adopt a more conventional Canadian accent. But in something like Durham County, why couldn’t she speak with her natural accent? I think something like one out of five “citizens” in Canada was not born in Canada. That’s a lot of Canadians…who speak with non-traditional Canadian accents.

(Now a quick digression to deal with the whole issue I’ve harped on: about a part “needing” to be non-white/ethnic. In the context of my comments, I’m suggesting this is a bad thing…and I suspect a lot of people will take exception to that, as if somehow I am doing a disservice to ethnic minorities by suggesting their ethnicity should be irrelevant. Even as I was drafting this essay, I came across an article about the Canadian sitcom, Less Than Kind. Though about a Jewish family, apparently the producers were taking great pains to assure critics it wasn’t a “Jewish” series…it was a series about people who happened to be Jews. In the article, the journalist saw this as a reflection of some underlining anti-Semitism, that the filmmakers were distancing themselves from a “Jewish” stigma. Maybe it was -- but maybe one could flip it around and say the filmmakers were simply stating the obvious: Judaism was part of their characters, but it was not all that defined them. From the sounds of it, the series wasn’t hiding the characters’ ethnicity (including having scenes at a Synagogue) but maybe they didn’t want to be pigeonholed by it -- the way that Little Mosque on the Prairie came under fire for doing scenes and jokes that had nothing to do with the characters being Muslim! Egad! Muslims who are just regular people?!? The horror! If we insist that ethnicity be the defining aspect of a character’s make-up, that leads to only casting ethnic or non-white actors in parts that explicitly are written for them. End of digression…)

And then we get to the big one: French. Despite Canada being an “officially” bilingual country, with millions who claim French as their first tongue, there seems to be an increasing shift in recent years to try and sweep that under the carpet in English language productions. Why? Partly, I suspect it’s because it is seen as too Canadian. Like saying “eh?”, having a francophone character is seen as corny or trite. Partly, as I said, I think there’s a concern among producers about presenting a Canadian identity that might seem too strange to other (read American) audiences.

So even as Flashpoint happily admits it’s Canadian with place references, the occasional flag, and even the rare pronouncing of the letter “zed”, one suspects the mindset is to present a Canada that is slightly exotic, but no more foreign to a US audience than if it was set in a 51st State. Hence why what you’ll often notice about it (or other set-in-Canada-but-aimed-at-the-US-marketplace series like Blood Ties) is that a major taboo is actually drawing attention to the notion of Canada and the US as separate countries -- Canada as a region, yes, with its own accent and landmarks, but not as an autonomous, foreign country. They never refer to “Canada” or “America”, per se, or to passports. So even when Flashpoint casts francophone Laurence Leboeuf as a guest star, she is given a non-French character name. Nor do I think you ever see any bilingual signs in any background shots.

Ironically, in the US some notice has been made of how the previously insular American culture has begun embracing series in which whole scenes are played out in other languages with sub-titles (Heroes, Lost). So what do we make of The Border, in which none of the federal agents are francophone? Or when they do an episode involving a character who is the premier of Quebec…he is played by an Anglophone actor!


Nothing’s absolute, of course, as should be obvious in the way I’m constantly bouncing from extreme to extreme in this essay. Lorne Cardinal’s role as the goofy police chief in Corner Gas shows Native Indian actors still win ethnically inspecific roles in Canada that, I suspect, they wouldn’t even be asked to read for in a comparable US series.

But as is the point behind my writing all this, there’s a distinction between things being good…and simply, not as bad as they were. A glass ceiling will still bump you on the head if you try and rise above it.

Every now and then the CBC airs themed Winnipeg Comedy Festival specials. One featured Native Indian comics. The surprising thing wasn’t so much that they had assembled a whole hour of funny Native Indian stand up comics…the strange thing was that most of them I’d never heard of. Why did it take a Native Indian-themed special to get most of these guys on TV? (And yes, they were mainly "guys"...but if I start writing about gender equality, this essay will never end!)

So, it’s glass half full/glass half empty time. The fact that there would even be an hour-long special focusing on Native Indian stand up comics on a major network is a glass half full thing -- can’t imagine NBC or CBS offering the same. But the fact that they would be ghettoized in such a special, as opposed to being just part of the regular roster of comics that appear on comedy specials is a glass half empty thing.

In fact, looking at half full/half empty…of the 10 adult (or adult friendly) TV series airing on the three main Canadian networks (that come to mind), two feature a Native Indian in the regular cast (Corner Gas, Heartland), I think six feature black actors, and two include other visible ethnicities (The Border, Little Mosque). In fact, only one series, Wild Roses, has no non-white actors in the main cast (though one character is supposed to be metis) -- I‘m lumping Sophie in with the multi-racial casts though one could quibble about whether the baby counts as a “regular“ or whether Lyriq Bent’s appearances are frequent enough to count as more than a guest star.

So…that’s actually not bad (glass half full!)…but we can see a clear slide toward black as the minority of choice (half full if you’re a black actor, half empty if you’re not)…a majority still feature a predominantly white cast with the non-white actor more a token (half empty), usually in secondary supporting parts (half empty), and usually receiving lesser billing than the white actors (half empty). And most provide few good guest star roles for non-white actors (half empty). Though of course, I’m focusing on the main networks, with some of the smaller cable networks tipping the scales a bit more toward half full (Soul, with its mainly black cast, APTN with its Native Indian series).

A curiosity one notices (and I’ve noticed this in US programs, as well) is how pluralism is more pronounced in kids shows…but the size and nature of roles diminish the older the target audience. Perhaps explaining why, for example, actor Barbara Mamabolo is the star in the kids/youth series, Zixx, only played the sidekick/best friend in the young adult series, Instant Star…and just had a couple of lines in one episode of the adult soap, MVP.

And this trend seems to continue in the leap from TV series, to TV movies, to “prestigious” theatrical movies. In fact, I realize I’ve kind of focused maybe too much on one area in this essay -- but I’m too lazy to go back and rewrite it.

In a way, this whole essay has actually been a “glass half full” exercise. Because, as much as I’m pointing out shortcomings, by focusing as much as I have on TV series, I’m actually highlighting the most ethnically diverse medium. Most weekly TV series in Canada make some token effort to include a non-white face, and some even focus on non-WASP cultures. Ironically, I think I’ve dwelt on TV series precisely because by making some effort toward diversity, they provide something to talk about -- gist for the intellectual mill, as it were. It’s a lot easier to make comments about a role…when there’s actually a role to comment on! Also, they have higher profiles than irregularly airing TV movies or theatrical releases which many people won’t see until they hit DVD or TV, often months after their official “release”.

But…once you get into TV movies, the ratio of non-white actors seems to be rather less, often the only significant parts reserved for roles that have to be non-white. Even “earnest” movies with anti-racism messages, like the mini-series, The Englishman’s Boy, still feature next to no significant non-white speaking roles!

And once you get into theatrical releases, the lack of non-white faces is even more pronounced. Shockingly so! (Go ahead, think back on the last few Canadian theatrical releases you saw). Which is ironic because theatrical releases are supposed to be more artistic, more edgy, less corporate/committee driven. And are the ones that are more likely to have their makers claiming they reflect the heart and soul of Canada!

Now the trap in trying to write about race and acting roles is that it’s very common to try and turn the argument around, to accuse someone like me of being the racist for even bringing it up, for even “noticing” whether an actor is non-white or not. That the true “non racist” is colour blind...and so doesn’t mind all white casts. That’s the argument that seems to come up a lot whenever issues like this are tackled. And, yeah, I suspect even the people making that argument know they’re being disingenuous.

So, in the end, what can one say? There are roles out there for non-white actors. But it’s not a level playing field. In fact, the very fact that I can point to the progressive exceptions kind of indicates that they are that: the exceptions. Yet, nothing is cut and dried. After all, the majority of the population in Canada is still white, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie or TV show that does, indeed, have an all white cast. The problem though, is when such casts are the norm.

What’s ironic about the whole multi-racial casting debate is that often in Hollywood producers hide behind the old “I’m not a racist…but my audience is” argument. That is, they acknowledge they won’t cast non-white actors in certain roles, or leading roles, but argue it’s because they are victims of the market place, and their movie/TV show wouldn’t play to white middle America if they did. A dubious argument at best. But in Canada, as has been noted in almost any article you read about Canadian film and TV, Canadian productions have trouble finding an audience anyway. Canadian filmmakers often make it clear that they don’t really expect their movie to do well, and their primary concern is the artistic and creative integrity of their work. So if they can’t blame their restricted casting choices on a hypothetical neo-Nazi audience…what is their excuse?

Not that I’m saying a lot of Canadian film makers, producers and casting directors are neo-Nazis -- not at all! But they might consider putting away their glossy coffee table books about the Planes of the Luftwaffe.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Apr. 29, 2009

Back to The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies and TV