Documentaries

A first look at Black Life: Untold Stories, a new must-see docuseries coming to CBC Gem in October

Black Life: Untold Stories illuminates the struggles and triumphs of Black Canadians while celebrating the contributions of both famous and lesser-known individuals.

New 8-part documentary series reframes the rich and complex histories of Black people in Canada over 400 years

'Here was Canada’s angriest Black man meeting the U.S.'s angriest Black man' | Black Life: Untold Stories

7 months ago
Duration 1:30
Writer Austin Clarke, right, interviews Malcolm X on race relations in Canada in 1963, in a scene from Black Life: Untold Stories.

Nearly 400 years since the first enslaved African arrived in Canada, a new series explores the lives of Black Canadians to this day.

"I think it's really important to trace the policing of Black people in Canada, and in the Americas more broadly, to the initial kidnapping of Africans from the western shores of Africa and being brought, of course, to what was called the New World," says Canadian writer Robyn Maynard in CBC's upcoming docuseries, Black Life: Untold Stories.

What is Black Life: Untold Stories about?

The series illuminates the struggles and triumphs of Black people in Canada while celebrating the contributions of both famous and lesser-known Black Canadians. Epic in scope, Black Life spans more than 400 years with an eye toward contemporary issues, culture, politics, music, art and sports.

Executive producers Leslie Norville and Miranda de Pencier recruited a distinguished team to create the eight-part series. Former governor general Michaëlle Jean and rapper and broadcaster Shad served as cultural consultants, and former NHLer P.K. Subban served as an executive producer for the series, which premieres on CBC Gem on Oct. 18 and on CBC-TV on Oct. 25. Two episodes of Black Life were selected for this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

A group of five people stand in front of a backdrop written Black Life.
Black Life: Untold Stories directors pose with executive producer P.K. Subban on the black carpet at a Toronto International Film Festival screening of the docuseries on Sept. 12, 2023. From left, Nadia Louis-Desmarchais, Will Prosper, Subban, Alicia K. Harris and Duane Crichton. (KIROS Images)

The docuseries reframes the history of Black Canadians, creating space for Black creators to dispel commonly accepted myths and celebrate the many contributions of generations of Black people in Canada. 

When can I watch the series?

WATCH | Official trailer for Black Life: Untold Stories:

A first look at Black Life: Untold Stories, a new must-see docuseries coming to CBC Gem on October 18 | Official Trailer

6 months ago
Duration 1:40
Epic eight-part documentary series reframes the rich and complex histories of Black people in Canada over 400 years.

CBC Gem

The first four episodes of Black Life: Untold Stories will be available on CBC Gem on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. 

Episodes 5 to 8 will be available on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

Download the free CBC Gem app from iTunes or Google Play, or watch it on your web browser.

CBC-TV

Watch Black Life: Untold Stories on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT), beginning Oct. 25. Check the CBC Program Guide for more information.

WATCH: In this scene from the docuseries episode "Creation Insists," Canadian writer Austin Clarke interviews Black activist leader Malcolm X.

Episodes

1. Haven, But No Heaven

A woman dressed in 18th century clothes stands in a room lit by the glow of a fire.
Black Life: Untold Stories includes the story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, an enslaved Black woman who was found guilty of setting fire to an entire merchant's quarter in Montreal in 1734. She was sentenced to death. (Studio 112/Northwood Entertainment/Ugly Duck Productions)

Directed by Scarborough, Ont., filmmaker Alicia K. Harris, "Haven, but no Heaven" examines the history of slavery, which dispels the myth of Canada as a utopia for Black people. But amid the tragedies, there are also instances of hope and resilience, including the remarkable account of the Blackburns, a couple who escaped enslavement and persecution in the U.S. and unwittingly put Upper Canada's new slavery laws to the test for the first time. The principle established in their landmark case remains foundational to Canadian extradition law to this day.

2. Revolution Remix

A large crowd fills the street.
'Fifty years ago, there were hundreds of people lined up around the building, looking at the students in the window and watching computer cards fall from the sky,' said author David Austin. (Concordia University Records Management and Archive [1074-02-037])

Centred on the years 1968 and 1969, during the World Congress of Black Writers and Artists and Sir George Williams Affair in Montreal, "Revolution Remix" explores the civil rights movement in Canada through two era-defining Black empowerment events.

Directed by Michèle Stephenson, a Canadian filmmaker with roots in Haiti and Panama, the episode looks at the evolution of the movement, from fighting indignities in public spaces and the gains in human rights legislation to a coming-out party for the Black Power movement, which sought to instil self-determination in every facet of the Black Canadian experience.

3. Northern Beats

A man sits in a dark room with a string of lights in the background.
Former MuchMusic VJ Master T, speaks in the Black Life: Untold Stories episode Northern Beats. (Studio 112/Northwood Entertainment/Ugly Duck Productions)

Through a mix of interviews with hip-hop experts and first-hand witnesses — including Master T, Michie Mee, Maestro Fresh Wes and Jully Black — archival footage and backstage access, "Northern Beats" looks at the Canadian roots of arguably the most dominant music genre in the world today.

Despite being largely unacknowledged, the influence and creativity of this generation's rappers had an undeniable impact on global music trends.

The episode was directed by Montreal-born filmmaker Will Prosper.

4. Migrations

Directed by Black feminist Nadia Louis-Desmarchais, "Migrations" paints an intimate portrait of Black migration to Canada. The episode examines the arrival of thousands of Caribbean people beginning in the 1950s, through work initiatives like the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and the West Indian Domestic Scheme, and it explores the challenges facing the more recent waves of Somali and Haitian migrants. "Migrations" unearths the roadblocks Black migrants have faced and continue to face on Canadian soil, as well as the extraordinary gains they have made in search of a better life and a place to call home.

5. Creation Insists

Austin Clarke holds up a glass of wine, beaming and holding a brown book, at the 2002 Giller Prize.
Giller Prize winner Austin Clarke hoists a glass after winning the $25,000 literary prize for his book The Polished Hoe at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, Nov. 5, 2002. (Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press)

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Karen Chapman, "Creation Insists" spotlights the work of six Black Canadian artists, some famous and some lesser-known, and celebrates their enduring creativity, skill, accomplishments and subject matter. 

This episode showcases the inspiring journeys, struggles and triumphs of these artists and the contributions they have made to the cultural landscape in Canada and beyond. "Creation Insists" also looks at the decidedly colonial perspective of  Into the Heart of Africa, the controversial 1989 art exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, and the ensuing protests in Toronto.

6. More than a Game

A man stands in front of a wall.
Toronto-raised hockey star P.K. Subban is an executive producer on the new docuseries, Black Life: Untold Stories. Subban, who appears in the docuseries, feels his story is inherently part of it, "being from Canada as a Black hockey player, one of very few that have played the game and played it at a high level." (Kadeem Olijah)

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Thyrone Tommy, "More than a Game" delves into the complicated history of Black high-performance athletes in Canada, who participated in boxing, baseball, track and field, hockey and more. Through vignettes and interviews with some of Canada's finest athletes, the episode looks at the climate for Black Canadian athletes, the evolution of racism in sport, and what the future holds.

7. Justice Denied

Sandy Hudson sits in a green wingback chair. She is wearing a yellow turtleneck.
Sandy Hudson in the Justice Denied episode of Black Life: Untold Stories. Hudson is also a co-executive producer on the series. (Studio 112/Northwood Entertainment/Ugly Duck Productions)

From the early days of the RCMP to the present-day Black Lives Matter movement, "Justice Denied" traces Black Canadians' struggle against systemic racism and police brutality. The episode, directed by St. Lucian-born filmmaker Duane Crichton, uses media depictions of policing throughout the ages to highlight the unjust portrayal of Black Canadians and illustrate how mainstream media has contributed to the normalization of violence against them.

8. Claiming Space

Directed by Frances-Anne Solomon, a trailblazer in the film and television industry, "Claiming Space" explores the history of Black settlements across Canada and the often-overlooked stories of Africville, N.S., and Little Burgundy in Montreal. The episode features the communities razed to make way for highways, parks and new urban infrastructure. But amid the devastation, there are stories of resilience and the relationships that endured.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist who was born in Zimbabwe and has received honours from the Canadian Church Press, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association Canada. She is a web writer and editor of First Person columns at CBC Edmonton. She is also the digital producer of CBC's docuseries, Black Life: Untold Stories, debuting on CBC Gem and CBC-TV in October. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca.

With files from the Canadian Press

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