In conversation with Hubert Davis, director of Black Ice

Hubert Davis attends the "Black Ice" Premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 10, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)


Hubert Davis is a Canadian documentary filmmaker whose short films include the Academy Award–nominated Hardwood and the critically-acclaimed Invisible City and Giants of Africa, which centres on Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujuri and his efforts to empower the youth of Africa through basketball camps. His latest film Black Ice, about the contributions of Black players to Canadian hockey and their experiences with racism that they still continue to face, won the People's Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and was voted one of Canada's Top 10 films of 2022.

On February 22, The Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE), in partnership with Innis College and the Cinema Studies Institute, will host a film screening of Black Ice followed by a panel discussion featuring Davis, KPE faculty Janelle Joseph and Simon Darnell, and award-winning journalist Dalton Higgins.

We caught up with Davis ahead of the special projection to chat about his movies, the power of sport for good - and bad, and the challenges of addressing racism in Canada.

Is there a common thread between your movies? Are there particular topics, stories or characters that you're interested in exploring more than others?

I would say that all of my movies come from a sense of curiosity and trying to figure something out for myself. My first film Hardwood about my relationship with my dad (Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis, who later became a basketball coach) is my most personal film. When I was making it, I was about to get married, I was in my late 20s and I think I was coming to terms with my past. 

My next documentary was Invisible City, about Regent Park being torn down and redeveloped. I really wanted to look at the idea of race and economics, in particular for young black men living in Toronto. At that time, I was really interested in doing something that was in the style of cinéma verité. I had never done that and I thought it was an interesting form of film.

The Portrait, a documentary about Phil Richards, a painter who was commissioned to create Canada's official portrait of Queen Elizabeth for her Diamond Jubilee, was more about art in general. Phil is a very accomplished artist, very old school, with a deep understanding of the history of art. So, I was very curious about that and his process as an artist. 

In Black Ice, my most recent doc, I wanted to explore the question of systemic racism. I've heard that expression, but I wanted to explore what it actually means. 

So, once I have the question, I talk to people who can help to explain it and then I put that into a context for viewers.

How did you feel when your first movie Hardwood was nominated for an Oscar?

I was reminded of that just recently when the nominations for this year’s Oscar came out. With your first film, you don't really know what the parameters are. I was just trying to get it made and I wanted it to be the best that it could be, so I was getting a lot of input from different people, but I also wanted to keep it true to what I was trying to express. The first public screening was quite emotional for me because I felt like I was able to do that. 

In general, I want my movies to be an experience for the people watching them, but I also want to express something that is interesting to me and not just cater to the idea of what I think people want to see. And that's a balancing act. The Oscar nomination felt like an acknowledgment that I was able to do that, but it was also a celebration for my family because they really put themselves out there. So, it also became a validation for them, which was important because it was a difficult story to share and they only really came forward because I asked them to, so it was great for them to see that other people could relate. 

How much has your father, a Harlem Globetrotter and later basketball coach, influenced your understanding of sport as not just a game, but a vehicle for change and transformation?

It was huge. My dad used sport as an outlet to create a career, a life. In many ways basketball was entangled into his very identity and sport was his identity. He grew up in difficult circumstances. His mom was very young when she had him, she was a single mom, so he was growing up in poverty in Chicago and sport was that great equalizer which allowed him to go to university, get a scholarship, then play professionally and later go on to teach kids and be an educator. He really viewed sport as a way to break down barriers. That is what sport has the power to do. 

I think the same thing can be said about the arts. For me growing up, I was really into acting. It was just an outlet that allows you to do something you enjoy and have a communication with people outside of school. However, not all those experiences are good and that's what we discuss in Black Ice

Black Ice explores the role of Black players in Canadian hockey, from pre-NHL contributions to the game to the struggles against racism that they still continue to face. How did you decide to explore the world of hockey for this documentary and not, say, football or any other sport?

The experience of these players in hockey could translate to any other sport arena – or industry. When I started the project and I started listening to the interviews, I could see a parallel to the film industry. Generally, a film set is not a very diverse place. So, I could relate when the players were talking about their experience of hockey. I could understand their love of the game, because that’s how much I love making films. And there was such a deep love for it. These players could have played multiple different sports, but they chose hockey because of how unique it was, the feeling they got from being out on the ice and skating. They couldn't get that feeling from anywhere else. I could understand putting up with quite a bit to stay within that space because that space gives you so much good, as well.

Sport has the power of building a community and that feeling of community is even greater in the world of hockey than what I grew up with in basketball. So, even though the film delves into the darkness, the positive side of sport is why people are fighting for it, because they want to be in that community. 

Were you aware of the extent of the marginalization that these players had experienced in NHL, or did some of the things they revealed come as a surprise to you?

I was aware of some of the stories from doing the research, but it’s always surprising to hear it from someone’s personal perspective, unfiltered. I think the ones that affected me most were some of the experiences that happened to these players when they were quite young, like being 10 years old, playing in the finals and hearing parents of another team making monkey noises. You could see how difficult it was to grapple with, to understand that at 10 years old. I was struck by the early age at which these incidents started and then also by the lack of response or any sort of accountability, which I kept hearing about over and over again. It surprised me, but I was also trying to figure out why. Why is it that we don't want to respond? And my take on it is that because it is so dark to think about those things, the tendency is to push it away and just say, ‘Oh, that person's ignorant, let's move on, let's just keep going.’ But, we need to really dissect the problem, to see where it’s coming from, to understand it in the bigger context. 

What are some of the challenges of addressing racism in art, but also in sport and Canadian society in general? What are some of the preconceptions that people have about it?

I think part of the problem is this idea that it's just individualistic. For example, someone uses a word they’re not supposed to, so they’re declared racist and excluded from society for being blatantly racist. But that type of thinking is actually not getting at the root of the problem at all, which is, it's not just about a word. What are the other contexts, what are the other ways that racism works? When we talk about systemic racism, we’re really saying that we have to look at society as a whole and how we understand the question of race, because race is ultimately a social construct. There was a certain point when someone said this is how we're going to define all of us, this is how we're going to separate us.

Another reason why Canadians are hesitant to address racism is because they fundamentally believe it doesn't exist. Because if I'm a white Canadian, I might not have had any of those experiences. I might have gone through hockey and not seen anything like that. No one's told me about this experience, so therefore it can't exist. Quite the opposite. And, because Canada in general paints itself as multicultural - and it is, especially in places like Toronto - it becomes really hard to grapple with the fact that there is racism within something that we've set up as our identity.

That's why when racist incidents happen, you want to turn away from them. You don't want to see it because it counters what you believe about yourself, which is why saying things like, ‘Well, it's not as bad as ...’ and pointing to somewhere else or saying, ‘She’s from a different generation or he’s from a different place’ is just a deflection. We're always trying to calculate and recalculate it, define it, figure it out. And, I think that's, in essence, why it doesn't go away. Because if you don't actually own it and say this is what's going on, then there's no end to that.

What would you like the audience to come away with after seeing the Black Ice documentary? 

It depends who they are. I would like the players and the young people of color who grew up here to feel a sense of pride. I want them to understand that they didn't just get here. They’re part of a long history that's embedded into the fabric of this country. I didn't know that going in. I grew up all my life in Canada and I never really understood that. For other viewers, if they haven't thought about these stories or they grew up in hockey and never saw any of those incidents, I would like them to recognize that it does happen and that it's okay not to know, but then once you learn about it, it’s not ok to still pretend that it doesn't happen.

RELATED READING: Anti-racism project led by KPE researcher in collaboration with Ontario University Athletics found many “completely unaware of the depths of the problem.” 

If you piece together enough stories from different people from different places, you’ll see there is a commonality to that experience. I was talking to someone recently about the Black community and I said I didn’t know what that meant. Are you talking about someone like Masai Ujiri, who moved here from Nigeria? Or are you're talking about someone like me, who grew up in Vancouver? We're only a community because of our shared experience with systemic racism. That’s what ultimately bonds us. If you grew up in Paris or you grew up in Vancouver and you can run into each other and have a common experience, then that shows you that the systemic problem extends beyond the US or Canada. It is something that we have all understood and grew up with and if we can't figure out that it means that there is a systemic issue, I'm not sure what will convince you.

How important is it for you to share your work with a university audience? What role do you think a university can and does play in both addressing and redressing issues such as racism?

Education is crucial, not just at university, but at all levels, to deepen your understanding of things. However, I think what often happens is that the Black experience is taught only within the framework of slavery and civil rights. Those are the benchmarks for understanding Black history in this country and, I think, a lot in the US. What’s problematic about that is all the stuff that happened in between those things, like what happened post slavery, what was that experience? I’m talking about systemic racism, the Jim Crow laws, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Black people moving from the South to big cities. That was my dad's experience.

We discuss some of that in Black Ice, the experiences of the Black community that moved to Canada, not only in Africville, but many other Black communities on the East Coast. What did they experience in that time? That's the fascinating stuff that we don't talk about because it doesn't fit into that narrative of how we understand race, which is that slavery was bad, we all decided we're going to stop it and then that was it. Universities and other educational institutions can get us to question that narrative that was passed on to us and that we pass on to others, reconfirming our own identity and belief system. I think we have to look a little bit deeper into that.

What are your connections to U of T? 

I am from the West Coast, but I've now lived in Toronto more than anywhere else, so I think it does affect your identity and how you see the world. Toronto is a very interesting place and the University of Toronto is at the center of that experience. We get to see the world through different perspectives, which is really important. The world is very polarized and you have people saying I don't want to hear about that experience, I just want to hear about this experience, and I'll just stick with that, but that’s not very healthy.

I grew up in a place where I had to try and take in other people's experiences in order to understand the world, and I think you do have to do that, to try and empathize and understand. The world starts to make more sense then, because you realize, if I went through this experience, this is how I would view it. Universities like U of T have an important role to play in that through education, through discussion and open dialogue like this.

Register for Black Ice: Film screening & panel discussion now