How Black Ice director Hubert Davis exposes Canadian hockey’s anti-Black racism

How Black Ice director Hubert Davis exposes Canadian hockey’s anti-Black racism

A Q&A with the TIFF 2022 People’s Choice Documentary Award winner

Photo courtesy of Kate Parkes, Elevation Pictures

The documentary Black Ice traces the history of racism within Canadian hockey. The film, which recently won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at TIFF and is co-produced by LeBron James, Drake, and Future, presents a harrowing look at what it’s like to be a Black hockey player. Its director, Academy Award–nominated filmmaker and Torontonian Hubert Davis, discusses the film’s genesis and how he hopes it will educate viewers about racial inequalities—both in hockey and beyond.

What sports did you play as a child?
I grew up in Vancouver, and I didn’t play sports until I was around age 11. My dad introduced me to basketball, and that became the sport I played. It was a way for us to connect. But I never played hockey. So, when the Black Ice project came up, I was hesitant about whether I was the right person for it.

So how did you come to be attached to the project?
The producer, Vinay Virmani, approached me about directing it. I wasn’t sure at first because I know how difficult it is to make feature documentaries. I thought a lot about what the project would allow me to do and say. That’s always the most important thing as a filmmaker—you’re just trying to figure out: What’s your point of view on the material? What do you bring through it that is personal to you, that you want to explore and ultimately communicate to people?

Black Ice required you to go back through history and all across Canada. How long did it take you to find subjects and gain access to past footage and photographs?
I didn’t realize quite how closed hockey is as a sport. You’re either on the inside or you’re on the outside. This idea that you’re not really supposed to speak up or stand out in any way became the first hurdle in trying to find people who would share their stories. But it also made it very exciting when we met the people who did want to speak up. Once we found those characters, it became cathartic for them to talk about the things they hadn’t been able to address in a mainstream way. The scope of the film became much, much bigger as we went along. I realized that it was not just about the personal stories but about putting them into historical context. We also realized early on that this story was bigger than just the NHL. Obviously, some of the participants have played in the NHL or are currently playing. But there’s footage from people playing in Europe, people playing at different levels, people playing all over the country and in the States. You can’t actually localize the issues in one place. Very often, in order to understand something, we tend to try to do that. But, the more we looked, the problems within the sport were everywhere.

The documentary involves the subjects talking about a lot of sensitive personal issues and experiences. How did you ensure that those stories were handled with care?
The biggest thing about documentary filmmaking is that you’re there to listen. Doing the pre-interviews, to me, was the most important step because I was able to have that initial conversation with the subjects, to talk about the project and some of their experiences, to see if they were a fit. We were not able to use all the experiences, but I did appreciate all the insights that everyone brought to the table.

It can also be difficult to constantly listen to these traumatic stories while making the film. How did you take care of yourself and your crew?
It was heavy. This whole process has been hard, and I think ultimately that’s why we don’t like to talk about these things. We don’t want to think about the darker parts of humanity, such as racism, and why systemic racism continues to exist. The crew and I had a lot of conversations. We had meals together and talked, and sometimes it would get quite heated. The subject matter is so emotional, and people feel certain ways because we’re all trying to reckon with our own experiences.

Were you frustrated by how the NHL—and a lot of other institutions—have been so slow to address systemic racism?
In the beginning, I was more surprised at people’s stories. You have to look at the root of where these ideas come from; it’s not like they just appeared today. I think that’s what people get confused about. They go, “Well, I’m not like that. I’m not teaching my kids to be that way. Therefore, the world isn’t that way.” It’s a really hard thing to wrap our minds around, that racism exists. The notion of bad apples is often used, meaning that it’s just a blip and that, if we get rid of those bad apples, the problem will be solved. But the problem with that metaphor is that it implies the system works when clearly—as the film shows—the system within hockey is not working for all. You have to look at the system and say, “We need to fix this problem by holding everyone accountable.” But some institutions have a fear of addressing this topic, and there are many reasons behind that.

Is there anything in particular you’d like audiences to take away from the film?
I hope that it can be a mirror for us. There are people who say that these problems don’t exist, that these stories didn’t happen or have been exaggerated. My hope is that the film opens some people’s eyes—people who maybe didn’t know how bad it was. And I hope that they then try to figure out a way to help make ice hockey better for the next generation, a safer place to be.