"What's important to understand is that African-Canadian history is Canadian history, and acquiring knowledge and understanding of this history is not only for people of African descent," says Sylvia D. Hamilton, Gemini-winning filmmaker, writer, poet, journalist and educator.
For this year's African Heritage Month, Hamilton and the Dalhousie Art Gallery's Ron Foley Macdonald have curated Black Film Artists with Nova Scotian Roots, a free Tuesday night series at the Gallery from February 4 to March 4.
"Film is a mass medium, a curious combination of art and industry. It's immediate and engaging," says Macdonald. "The founder of the National Film Board, John Grierson, found that film was ideal for education as much as for entertainment."
The series features films that strive to do both. "This year we're showing the works of African-American actor Geoffrey Cambridge, who was born in New York but grew up in Sydney," Macdonald explains. These selections are The Watermelon Man (February 4) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (February 11), results of a 1960s Hollywood initiative to hire African-American directors, "to make films for specifically black audiences."
In these films, says Macdonald, Cambridge presents a "post-Sidney Poitier-style of African-American actor who pushes the limits on issues of race and identity." At the time, this type of feature was new territory--- it led to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s.
The series will also screen five of Hamilton's own documentaries, which focus on aspects of African culture and history in a Nova Scotian context. "For the longest time, the voices and experiences of people of African descent in Canada were absent from media of all kinds. It's still not in any way equitable. When one did read or see people of African descent, they were often presented as a 'problem to be solved.' We are not 'problems,'" she says. "It was and remains a vital act for me to tell stories from the perspective of a person of African descent."
Hamilton acknowledges her work doesn't speak for everyone, but her contributions are invaluable. "Film seemed an ideal medium, and it can travel across geography in a particular way," she adds. Hamilton's NFB productions (1992's Speak It! From The Heart of Black Nova Scotia and 2000's Portia White: Think on Me) are shown in schools, libraries and communities across Canada.
"It was important for me to see people who looked like me on the screen," she says. Speak It! follows a group of high school students discovering their African heritage and understanding their relationships to Halifax. "The themes of the film---identity, race, youth empowerment---are still current today in Nova Scotia and across Canada and within many different communities."
The series ends with a tribute to Dr. Burnley "Rocky" Jones, the activist and lawyer who brought the Black Panther Party to Canada, founded The Black United Front of Nova Scotia, fought for rights in the Supreme Court and is the subject of Hamilton's Against the Tides: The Jones Family.
Because of settlement and culture, African Nova Scotian history is one of the most unique in North America. For a relatively small community, there is a huge number of important figures. "As we might say Nova Scotians should know about Joseph Howe, we need to recognize that Nova Scotians need to know about Carrie Best, newspaper founder, or William P. Oliver, an outstanding Canadian educator, or historian Calvin Ruck, and many more" says Hamilton. "And not just in February."
Black Film Artists with Nova Scotian Roots: African Heritage Month Films
Tuesdays at 8pm to March 4
Dalhousie Art Gallery, 6101 University Avenue