For Canadian actor Shamier Anderson (Bruised, Destroyer, Stowaway) Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts in Scarborough, Ont., is more than just his old high school.
It was the incubator for his acting dreams, and his fight against systemic racism in the Canadian arts.
“Growing up, I realized that there weren’t a lot of examples of Black excellence on the national stage,” Anderson told Global News one afternoon.
“It was an eye-opening experience, and that’s why I started the Black Academy — not only because of Wexford, but just my experience in the industry.”
It’s that perspective that has been the push behind The Black Academy, the latest initiative by the 29-year-old Wynonna Earp star and his 26-year-old brother and fellow actor, Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk, Selma, Race).
A first-of-its-kind in Canada, the brothers say the national Black-led organization will “elevate and inspire both Anglophone and Francophone Black talent across the country” through fostering, celebrating and showcasing emerging Black talent, across all industries — not just the arts.
“It’s a year round-body that’s not only going to have an awards gala to celebrate Black excellence in all sectors, from business, philanthropy, sports, but there’s also going to be programming specific to the Black community,” said Anderson.
“There’s not enough governing bodies, infrastructures, places to celebrate Black excellence. When Black people slip and fall, we see that all over the news. It’s very rare we get to hear the Pinball Clemons of the world doing incredible stuff.”
The brothers imagine the organization (an extension of their not-for-profit, B.L.A.C.K, Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema and Knowledge which they established four years ago) will host award shows, similar to that of the BET awards, NAACP awards and Soul Train awards in the United States.
James says it’s not about the lack of Black talent in Canada, but the lack of opportunities — an unsettling gap in representation that troubled him at the Canadian Screen Awards last year, when he was presented the Radius Award by his big brother.
“I was left with a sort of bittersweet feeling after I left that stage,” the Golden-Globe nominated star of the Amazon drama Homecoming told Global News, in an interview from Los Angeles.
“Thinking, ‘Man, I may be one of a handful of Black Individuals that’s gonna, you know, be able to stand on this stage tonight.'”
With an eye on changing that reality, the brothers say The Black Academy will combat those inequities, by supporting and spotlighting those in the Black community through “educational programming, panel discussions and more.”
Anderson says the organization is necessary for investing in the Black talent — from Anglophone to Francophone — here at home.
“When we do these types of things, these initiatives, it’s not a charity,” Anderson said, “This is going to breed success. This is going to change lives.
“This is going to shift the tectonic plates when it comes to school to prison pipelines…and giving hope for people who are hopeless — and, ultimately, it will combat systemic racism and poverty.”
For James, that investment extends to fostering the Black writers and filmmakers to take ownership of Black stories — opportunities, he discovered, of which there were more in the U.S. than in Canada.
“If we want to be able to have our stories told on screens, we have to think about who’s authoring those stories and empowering those people to be able to create content for us,” said James.
“Its not okay to constantly be in this situation where you can’t have a career at home. You feel like you’re forced to move south of the border because there aren’t enough opportunities. Canada is not short on talent, especially in the Black community…and so the hope is The Black Academy will continue to create more opportunities for Black creatives and excellence coming out of Canada.”
The brothers’ passion is personal. Growing up in a Scarborough community housing project and raised by a single mother, whom Anderson describes as “incredible”, was a struggle the brothers won’t forget. Now they’re reaching back to pull others up with them.
“To be something, you gotta be able to see it,” says James. For James, he “saw it” in his older brother.
“I remember being 13, 14 years old and going to (his) shows at Wexford, and seeing Black people on stage — seeing my brother on stage — it just, blew my mind. It made me believe that it was possible, that it was attainable,” James recalled.
He says the power of representation is that it’s infectious, and knows no bounds.
“When I have those moments, of young kids looking up to me and saying, ‘Wow you played, John Lewis’ or, ‘Man, you just hung with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, 21 Bridges)…it makes the idea less of a crazy one, when you’re able to see someone who comes from where you come from be able to take it as far as me and my brother have taken it.”
The Black Academy boasts a power-packed board of directors, whom Anderson calls the academy’s “Avengers” team and which the brothers will co-chair.
Sitting on that board are big names spanning various sectors, including Vanessa Craft, director of content partnerships at TikTok in Canada; Alica Hall, executive director of Nia Centre for the Arts; Wes Hall, founder of the firm Kingsdale Advisors and Tonya Williams, award-winning actress/producer and founder of the Reelworld Screen Institute.
The Academy also kicks off with funding from the Canada Media Fund. However, the brothers are calling on the government and corporate Canada to stand with them to end systemic racism in the industry.
“It’s (about) fostering talent,” says Anderson. “It’s creating those incubators and accelerator programs. It’s funding things like the Black Academy.
“It’s those silos that we need to create for ourselves, but not just a one-time cheque that’s cut from the government because someone feels bad today…it’s sustainability, it’s permanence. ”
— With files from the Canadian Press