Sports·Opinion

Documentary 'More Than A Game' a powerful look at intersection of sports and race

Black Life: Untold Stories is a series that tells stories of Black individuals and communities, and explores everything from slavery in Canada to migration, the justice system, sports leagues and formidable athletes.

Director Thyrone Tommy teaches history many of us never had the chance to learn

A film crew takes footage of a man walking.
Director Thyrone Tommy, centre, and a film crew with P.K. Subban, right. (Duane Cole Photography)

It is undeniable that history is an important part of sports. Stories told through sports have the power to challenge uncomfortable truths about what Canada has been, and is instructive when deciding what direction anti-racism and inclusion initiatives should move within sports landscapes across the country.

I enjoy watching sports documentaries and have been quite moved by filmmakers using their art to tell stories from their communities and experiences that often go unreported. 

Black Life: Untold Stories is a series of eight episodes that tells stories of Black individuals and communities, and explores everything from slavery in Canada — yes, there was very much slavery in Canada — to migration, the justice system, and sport leagues and formidable athletes.

Recently I saw episode six called More Than A Game. It airs Wednesday, Nov. 29 and is available now on CBC Gem. It was directed by Thyrone Tommy and is insightful, powerful and shares the voices of some of the most prolific athletes Canada has ever known, as well as their descendants.

I don't normally take notes while watching films, but as I screened this one, I wrote down quotes, names and dates and it felt like it was a critical history lesson I never got to learn. I have certainly felt this way regarding Indigenous stories and why I never learned about residential schools and the generations of innocent children who were abused and ripped from their families in the name of colonization. Why did I never learn this in my public education? 

WATCH | 'I want audiences to experience what it's like to be a Black athlete':

‘I want audiences to experience what it's like to be a Black athlete’ | Black Life: Untold Stories

5 months ago
Duration 2:45
Canadian film director Thyrone Tommy shares his vision for ‘More Than a Game,’ the sixth episode of CBC docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories. Watch the full docuseries on CBC Gem.

In Canada, we often mistakenly see ourselves as the place where Black slaves escaped the terrors of slavery in the United States.

When Dr. George Elliot Clarke, poet laureate, says in the film "We need to know all the history that is incumbent upon us to know. 'Cause if you don't know it, you're gonna be tricked, bamboozled, fooled into thinking that things are okay when they're not okay," I let out a gasp. I was shocked by this simple proclamation, but also have been thinking about why it applies to sports so much.

Like many things, sports and the existence and representation of Black athletes is very much about context. Does it make Canada look good? No, not always. But it gives us the much-needed context to work with in order to progress. 

The film features brilliant Black academics like Dr. Ornella Nzindukiyimana, whose voice I immediately recognized as the film began. She is an expert on Black sport history and critical race theory and I have followed her work for years.

There are the stories of boxer Sam Langford, baseball player Earl (Flat) Chase, sprinters Valerie Jerome and Crystal Emmanuel, and hockey player P.K. Subban. While Subban is also listed as an executive producer of the episode, his story is deeply connected to the theme. Producer Leslie Norville told me via email that the inclusion of Subban's stories of being a Black hockey player in Canada was a production decision and separate from his work as an EP.

The way that Subban has been woven into the story connects with the Jerome siblings running track in the 1950s in North Vancouver and with Chase, a pitcher who played with the Chatham Coloured All-Star team in the 1930s. According to the film, Chase "hit the longest home run in every park he played in."

There are moments of glory and achievement, but also parts where these incredible athletes have faced the most cruel abuse and maltreatment. We can argue that it doesn't happen anymore — it does — or we can watch this film and listen while learning the ways in which we can empower Canadian sport with an arsenal of talented athletes irrespective of their hues.

Telling stories of marginalized communities often involves hardship and it is a difficult balance to tell these stories without making it trauma porn for audiences who are not accustomed to personal stories. I struggle with this sometimes when I write because although I believe in perseverance and growth, expressing the urgency and importance to recognize someone's life experience is hard. Tommy manages to keep us engaged and enthralled while amplifying important points and creating a beautifully produced film. 

More Than A Game is not a film that dismisses the connection of people and their love of sport. In fact, sport is central to the story because it is the foundation and part of the identity of all the people featured. And sport is something that we can agree we love and wanting to make it stronger in Canada is something that unifies us.

I have spent a lot of time in the past two decades unlearning and relearning. Sports historians offer viewers so much rich information about Canada while Tommy takes us on a journey that dives deeply into the way that sports are structured and how even media has historically treated Black people in Canadian sport.

If we love something, we want to make it better, right?

More Than A Game gives us an opportunity to not only take out our pens and learn properly, but also deeply reflect on what we want for sports in Canada, and what we want for ourselves.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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