Black Ice: Hubert Davis on making a film about Black experiences in hockey

Filmmaker Hubert Davis attends the "Black Ice" premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

With his latest documentary Black Ice, Canadian filmmaker Hubert Davis explores the contributions of Black players to Canadian hockey and their ongoing experiences with racism. 

The film 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 Feb. 22, the University of Toronto’s 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 members Janelle Joseph and Simon Darnell, as well as award-winning journalist Dalton Higgins.

KPE writer Jelena Damjanovic recently caught up with Davis – 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 – to chat about his movies, the power of sport and the challenges of addressing racism in Canada.

Why did you decide to explore the world of hockey for this documentary?

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. 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. 

Did some of the things the players 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 to understand it in the bigger context, we need to really dissect the problem to see where it’s coming from. 

What are some of the challenges of addressing racism in art, but also in sport and Canadian society in general? 

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 that 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. I think that's 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 Black Ice

It depends who they are. I would like the players and the young people of colour 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 OK not to know – but then once you learn about it, it’s not OK to still pretend that it doesn't happen.

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 Vancouver and you can run into each other and have a common experience, then that shows you that the systemic problem extends beyond the U.S. 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.

What role do you think a university can play in 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, 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 U.S. What’s problematic about that is all the stuff that happened in between those things. 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.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity

Read the full Q&A at the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education

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