Forgotten pioneers of the sport
By Dwight Brown | NNPA Newswire film critic
Hard to imagine that in the late 1800s men of African descent played hockey in Canada. That’s a major surprise considering the demographics of today’s National Hockey League. But there’s a backstory, an evolution and lots of it is quite sobering.
Director Hubert Davis (Oscar® nom Best Documentary, Short Subject for Hardwood) and producers Vinay Virmani and Scott Moore seem to have four goals for their ice hockey doc: 1.) Reclaim and showcase the history of Black players. 2.) Point out the inequities of the sport and its systemic racism. 3.) Let Black players reveal their love of the sport and abusive experiences. 4.) Show ways veteran players are supporting the next gen.
As an educational endeavor, the research, photos, newspapers articles, interviews and anecdotes from pioneers who’ve made inroads into the game are illuminating. Learning that the slap shot (Eddie Martin) and aggressive goalie play (Henry Franklin) stemmed from the Colored Hockey League is fascinating. In fact, inspiration is one of the film’s strengths.
At the end of the film, when former NHL players like Akim Aliu (Calgary Flames) prepare kids to take over a sport they’ve rightly inherited as much as white Canadians, that sends a message of hope too. Solutions, like funding the equipment for kids, are encouraging efforts that viewers will likely revere. More reasons for audiences to watch a 97-minute hockey doc, even if they know that this volatile sport continues to be hostile towards Black players.
As athlete after athlete relives the degradation they’ve faced, their personal anecdotes become increasingly alarming and emotionally draining. Name calling. Bananas being thrown on the ice. Spectators making grunting ape sounds. It makes you wonder if hockey is worth the fight. Many sports have evolved from a deeply racist background that often included segregated leagues, Black players breaking into all-white pro teams and enduring hostility so that those who follow in their path will have it easier. That’s true with baseball, basketball, tennis...
Most recently the illuminating documentary The League, successfully chronicled pioneering Black baseball leagues and its innovators. And the sports doc Unfinished Business chronicled the origins, disparities, breakthroughs and survival of the WNBA. Both films used interviews with sports icons, historians and intellectuals to retell the story of the innovators who braved baseball and basketball. No punches were pulled. The difficulties, pejorative names, dehumanization, racism, sexism and homophobia exposed. But somehow those hard truths were balanced by the perseverance, achievements and innovations those heroes brought to their sports back in the day and now. Viewers walked away inspired. Hopeful.
Black Ice gets into the trenches on racism in hockey with the graphic, triggering experiences of humiliations players endured yesterday and today. Yet something seems off. Like there is no balance between the negative and positive reasons for participating in hockey, a sport that clearly doesn’t love its Black players back.
In opening scenes that reveal the film’s intentions, it is said: “If we don’t talk about it, we don’t have to take ownership of the negative things that happened.” In that way, as a filmmaker, airing the justified grievances makes sense, especially if the perpetrators are listening. But as a viewer looking to learn more about the history of black hockey players, this well-meaning, well-shot (Chris Romeike) documentary makes it seem like hockey is a sport so repulsive and entrenched in bigotry that it’s not worth the effort. If that is not this film’s goal, it needs further editing (editor Eamonn O’Connor), a rewrite (screenwriter Darril Fosty) and a shift in emphasis.
A smarter balance of enlightening history, social analysis, graphic recollections and solutions would attract a wider audience to hear this film’s message. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine who would sit through this doc twice. Or why any parent with a black child would submit their kids to a sport that hasn’t evolved racially and exposes black players to vile treatment by the front office, crowds, coaches and other players.
Brave hockey pros like Aliu, Saroya Tinker, Sarah Nurse, Wayne Simmonds, P.K. Subban and Willie O’ree tell their horrific stories candidly, with grace, hope and trying to effect change. But If there is a case for people of African descent to continue to be involved in a sport that won’t even meet them halfway, it is not in this honest but bleak film.
The noble cause, good intentions and efforts to hold Canada’s #1 sport accountable are admirable. But something about this doc doesn’t click.