Ten must-watch films recognize Black-Canadian artists, culture and history

Film reel

In celebration of Black History Month, Kerry-Ann James, a Cinema and Media Studies master’s student and open forum curator at the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design, shares a list of 10 must-watch films recognizing Black-Canadian artists, culture and history.  

“When thinking of Canada’s national identity and what Canada looks like on film, Black Canadians are rarely at the centre. Yet, there is an undeniable abundance of Black-Canadian filmmakers creating extraordinary work that champions the complexity and diversity of Black Canada,” says James. “I chose to curate a list of short and feature-length films of various genres and themes to showcase the many ways Black-Canadian stories uniquely and inherently speak to the African diaspora. From outstanding veterans like Jennifer Hodge da Silva and Clement Virgo to emerging visionaries like Kelly Fyffe-Marshall and Kourtney Jackson, the vision, connectivity and artistry ingrained in Black-Canadian cinema are to be celebrated.” 

James hopes viewers of these films catch a glimpse of Black Canada’s beauty, recognize the persistence of the following Black artists, and are encouraged to depart from this list into the large and ever-growing work of Black cinema not only during Black History Month but every month.   

From award-winning short films to documentaries, check out the 10 must-watch film list:  

Clement Virgo, Rude (1995) 

This is the Easter weekend. In an inner-city project, three people struggle against their demons and try to find redemption. They are Maxine, a window dresser depressed since she had an abortion and lost her lover; Jordan, a boxer who has indulged in gay-bashing; and “The General,” a drug dealer turned artist. 

Unarmed Versus film poster

Charles Officer, Unarmed Verses (2017) 

This feature documentary presents a thoughtful and vivid portrait of a community facing imposed relocation. At the centre of the story is a remarkably astute and luminous 12-year-old Black girl whose poignant observations about life, the soul and the power of art give voice to those rarely heard in society. Unarmed Verses is a cinematic rendering of our universal need for self-expression and belonging. 

Jennifer Hodge da Silva, Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community (1983) 

The Jane-Finch corridor is an area of six square blocks in Toronto’s North York. To the residents of Metro Toronto, the corridor evokes images of vandalism, high-density subsidized housing, racial tension, despair and crime. By focusing intimately on the lives of several of the residents, many of them Black or members of other visible minorities, and their relationship with police, social service agencies and other major institutions that affect their lives, the film provides a powerful view of a community that, contrary to its popular image, is working towards a more positive future. 

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Sharon Lewis, Brown Girl Begins (2017) 

It’s 2049 on a forsaken island off the coast of Toronto where the survival of the islanders depends on young Ti-Jeanne, who must risk death by a spirit so she can take her place as a Caribbean priestess and save her people. 

Hubert Davis, Invisible City (2009) 

Invisible City is a moving story of two boys from Regent Park crossing into adulthood – their mothers and mentors rooting for them to succeed; their environment and social pressures tempting them to make poor choices. Turning his camera on the often-ignored inner city, Davis, an Academy-award nominated director, sensitively depicts the disconnection of urban poverty and race from the mainstream. 

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Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, Black Bodies (2020) 

Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s sophomore film Black Bodies follows a Black man (Komi Olaf) lamenting as he comes face-to-face with the realities of being Black in the 21st century. 

Christene Browne, Another Planet (1999) 

A young woman unsure of her cultural heritage arrives in rural Quebec, Canada. 

Kourtney Jackson, Wash Day (2020) 

As they get ready for the day, three young Black women discuss the public perception of their Blackness in relation to their cultivation of a strong sense of self. Wash Day is an intimate exploration into how private, domestic acts such as washing your hair or putting on makeup become a significant re-acquaintance with the body, before and after navigating the politics of one’s outwardly appearance. 

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Ngardy Conteh George, Mr. Jane and Finch (2019) 

A beloved 80-year-old Guyanese-Canadian activist Winston LaRose, who has documented the Black community throughout the African Diaspora for the past 60 years, throws his hat into local politics and is met with unflinching systemic racism in the Canadian political system. This film gives an insider perspective of Black community activism in Canada. 

Carmine Pierre-Dufour, Emilie Mannering, Mahalia Melts in the Rain (2018) 

Mahalia, a timid nine-year-old Black girl, feels different from the other girls in her ballet class. Hoping to boost her confidence, her mother brings her to the hair salon to get her hair straightened for the very first time.