Scarborough-born brothers Stephan James and Shamier Anderson have been on the come up for a while—James, thanks to his acclaimed work in films like Selma and If Beale Street Could Talk and Golden Globe-nominated turn in Amazon Prime Video’s Homecoming, and Anderson, whose action-comedy Super High recently generated a massive bidding war. Now, they’re looking to bring the next generation of Black Canadian talent up with them.
Just last week, the duo launched The Black Academy, a year-round organization dedicated to breaking down barriers and combating systemic racism in Canada, by “honouring, celebrating, and showcasing established and emerging Black talent.” It’s a division of their not-for-profit group B.L.A.C.K. Canada (Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema + Knowledge), which the brothers first founded in 2016. Borne out of James and Anderson’s desire to generate more recognition, and in turn, opportunities for Black Canadians, the initiative is the first of its kind in Canada—which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about why a program like this is so sorely needed.
The initiative comes during a time when Canadian talent is having something of a moment on the global pop culture scene, from the worldwide domination of artists like The Weeknd and Drake to Schitt’s Creek’s recent Emmys sweep. And also during a time when the Canadian entertainment industry is experiencing something of a reckoning about the very real gap in representation, both on-screen and off, spurring important conversations about access to funding, who gets it and why.
To help combat this, Telefilm committed $100,000 towards the creation of the Black Screen Office this summer, and the HireBIPOC portal was created. Meanwhile, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television—with James and Anderson on the board of directors—launched an Equity and Inclusion Fund to develop projects from diverse screenwriters. Now, James and Anderson hope to carry that momentum forward with The Black Academy.
Complex Canada’s Alex Narvaez spoke with James and Anderson over Zoom about the new venture, repping Scarborough from LA, and more. Watch the full video above—we’ve got highlights from the interview below.
On forming The Black Academy:
James: In 2016, Shamier and I started a not-for-profit called B.L.A.C.K., which is an acronym for Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema + Knowledge. Essentially, we started it to be able to have a place where Black creatives could come and be celebrated in conjunction with the Toronto International Film Festival. Over the years, we've become one of TIFF's top events. So that's been a great partnership. But Shamier and I are always plotting on ways to do more, to be more impactful, to do something that's more meaningful.
That's really where the impetus of The Black Academy came from. It's being able to create a national platform for Black artists, Black creatives, Black leaders, to be able to come together, have an infrastructure of resources that Shamier and I weren’t afforded coming up in this game. And to be highlighted for their achievements not only at home, but abroad as well.
On selecting the Academy’s board of directors:
Anderson: We've identified a handful of individuals from different sectors across Canada. These individuals, we feel are leaders in their communities, from Vanessa Craft, who's formerly the editor-in-chief of Elle Canada, who is now the director of content partnership at TikTok Canada. We have Alica Hall, who is the executive director of the Nia Centre for the Arts, which is doing incredible work in the community on a grassroots level. We have Wes Hall, who is a Bay Street boss, executive chairman and founder of Kingsdale Advisors, and also the chair and founder of BlackNorth Initiative.
We also have Jennifer Holness, who is the founder of the Black Screen Office and also a producer. Divya Shahani, who is our legal at Miller Thompson. And lastly is Tonya Williams, who is an award-winning actress, producer, founder of the Reelworld [Film Festival and Screen Institute], and quite frankly, a pioneer in this business. We feel that they're going to add a lot of value to this board, and most importantly, really accelerate the conversation.
"We had to really look ourselves in the mirror and be like, if we were going to see any change, we were probably going to have to be a part of whatever that change was going to be."
On Canada’s representation gap:
James: You can say that the time is now, but the reality is, the time was probably 50 years ago.
We feel like there aren't too many people doing what we're doing coming from where we come from. How many other Black actors can you look to from Scarborough? There's not a whole lot.
So we had to really look ourselves in the mirror and be like, if we were going to see any change, we were probably going to have to be a part of whatever that change was going to be. And actively too. It's not enough for us to just get cast in our roles and chill in Los Angeles. The weather's nice out here, but that's not really doing anything for our community back home in Scarborough, and Canada as a whole. So you talk about this gap within the Anglophone and Francophone community that exists where we don't really have a stage, we don't really have an infrastructure to career-build. Everyone feels like in order to garner a specific amount of success, they gotta go south of the border. And that's just not OK anymore.
We saw what happened with Drake. We saw how Drake had to get love in the south before Canada said, All right, this is our guy, you know what I mean? We want to end this perpetual cycle of people feeling like they gotta leave to be celebrated and recognized and to ultimately grow their careers and grow their brand.
On the current state of the Canadian entertainment industry:
James: Look, for the longest time we used to feel like the rest of the world didn't even realize that Canada existed, right? But I think you're seeing more and more, especially in the music space, with the Drakes and the Weeknds and the Shawn Mendes' of the world. Jessie Reyez. All these incredible people who come from where we come from, doing what they're doing, it's great. I think something like 50 NBA players are now Canadians, which is unreal. So we're not short of talent. We're just short of platforms for highlighting and recognizing and celebrating that talent. Black excellence exists in a variety of verticals. How do we tap into that?
You've got to be able to see it to be it. And that's what The Black Academy is doing.
On whether awards matter:
James: I would say first and foremost, as artists, awards are never the driving force for anything that we do. We don't wake up and say, “I want to win an Oscar. This is what's going to motivate me waking up every day.” I'm sure The Weeknd doesn't wake up and think, “I want to win a Grammy. That's what's waking me up every day.”
But with that being said, you look at somebody like The Weeknd's situation and you think, how could someone who had the 2020 that he had not be recognized for his accomplishments?
At a certain point, it does matter because the people who are getting the awards, their leverage in situations is just different when they have that hardware. When they're negotiating their next film, or they're negotiating their next music venture, they use that hardware to say, “Look what I've accomplished on the biggest stage.” So I think that it is important to have high-profile institutions that are highlighting people in the correct way and have a diverse group of people who are making the important decisions about who's being honoured.
James: I think it's no secret that Shamier and I, we both wear Scarborough on our back. So when I look at an opportunity that I have to be on a stage or to be nominated for something as big as a Golden Globe, how am I going to use that moment? How am I going to use that opportunity?
For me and for Shamier as well, we're always thinking about something that's bigger than ourselves. So even more so than my own recognition, whether it be Golden Globes or Emmys or anything, I like to say that Scarborough is being nominated too. It's a win for Scarborough as well. It's a big deal to have somebody like myself, somebody like Shamier, be singing Scarborough's praises, Toronto's praises, Canada's praises, the world over. You know that we haven't forgotten about you guys and you know that we want to be a part of whatever change is going to happen in this community.
On being Canadian in Hollywood:
Anderson: I say a lot of sorrys. [Laughs.] Free healthcare. Nah, I'm playing. I think it's important just from an educational standpoint, when we're in Los Angeles getting our next job, next opportunity, we tell them we're from the hood, they're like, “You got hoods in Canada?” And it's like, little do you know...
But we're a small community out there, whether it be the Ryan Goslings, the Ryan Reynolds, the Drakes, the Weeknds, and you find your tribe. And I think it's so cool that you had Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber open the American Music Awards, which I think is heavy within itself. To really identify that we got something special at home. Whether you like the music or not, it's irrelevant. We're Canadians and we're coming out. We're coming out strong.
On what getting cast in Homecoming meant to James:
James: This is coming from a guy who's played multiple important Black figures, right? Whether you look at Jesse Owens in Race or John Lewis in Selma, I've always prided myself on doing work that is not only entertaining but is important. It speaks to the Culture and speaks to life. So when I read the Homecoming script and saw no mention in there of a Black actor or my character, Walter, being Black, it's just so exciting because it feels like there is no box. If I were to get a role like this when any of my white counterparts could have gotten the same role, it just feels like a different sort of win.
It's a really cool opportunity, because now I'm giving the young Black veteran who never got to see themselves on television, now I'm giving them that opportunity with Homecoming. I remember being in the elevator in Chicago and having an ex-Marine look at me, almost get into tears and say, “Wow, I watched Homecoming, and you wouldn't believe how much I really related with Walter.” So that's the thing that I think we really look forward to when we get cast in roles like this. I want to play colourless characters, characters that don't have barriers.