Shamier Anderson (“Wynonna Earp”) and Stephan James (“Homecoming,” “American Son”) want to break down barriers of discrimination and combat systemic racism in the Canadian arts.
On Dec. 3, the Scarborough, Ont. brothers announced the formation of The Black Academy, an expansion of their not-for-profit B.L.A.C.K. Canada (Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema + Knowledge), which they established in 2016. The new, Black-led organization will honor, celebrate and showcase established and emerging Black talent, amplifying English and French-Canadian talent and artists across the country.
“The impetus of The Black Academy stems from our long-lasting commitment, deep ties to our community, and an awareness of the lack of opportunities to celebrate and elevate Black talent in Canada,” Anderson tells Variety. “The Black Academy celebrates and inspires Black Canadians, not only in the arts, but culture, entertainment and sports. This is something that’s the first of its kind, and we’re excited to really bring it up and bring it out and build awareness around it.”
The brothers began thinking about building an organization like this last year when the Canadian Screen Awards asked Anderson to present James with the Radius Award, a trophy that celebrates a Canadian in the entertainment industry who makes waves globally. “As humbled and grateful as I was for that opportunity, almost instantaneously after I left that stage I got the feeling that it was a little bittersweet for me,” James says.
“I was probably going to be one of maybe two or three Black people that were going to step on that stage that night. That was unsettling for us—the fact that there’s not enough of us being honored and recognized in this way. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the same opportunities to be able to show and highlight our Black excellence.”
As part of the announcement, Anderson and James also named the first six board of directors of The Black Academy. They include Vanessa Craft (director of content partnerships at TikTok Canada), Alica Hall (executive director of Nia Centre for the Arts), Wes Hall (founder and chair of the BlackNorth Initiative), Jennifer Holness (producer, screenwriter, and board chair of Black Screen Office), Divya Shahani (a Toronto entertainment lawyer), and Tonya Williams (actor and founder/executive director of Reelworld Film Festival). Additionally, the Canada Media Fund (CMF) is the first to fund the new organization.
Variety caught up with the sibling changemakers, who in addition to working with youth in their hometown also sit on the boards at TIFF and the Academy of Film and Television for Canada. Below they discuss forming The Black Academy, tackling systemic racism, and the importance of celebrating Black excellence.
What were some of your earlier conversations that sparked this idea and how do you hope to change or address the lack of opportunities for Black Canadians in the landscape?
James: Shamier and I asked ourselves, what if we stopped waiting on other people to acknowledge us and we just acknowledged ourselves here at home? We see so many examples of individuals who had to garner some level of success in the United States before Canada really embraced them. Drake is the most obvious example of somebody who was embraced by the United States before Canada really fully accepted him.
We asked, how do we get rid of this perpetual loop? And this is how. It’s to create infrastructure in which we’re helping give the tools for Black creatives in many different verticals, to be able to do what they do best, or what they want to do best. The biggest thing with this Academy is we’re now giving an opportunity to celebrate, here on the ground level in Canada, the talent that we have here. We’re not short of talent but we are short of opportunities. And so we can only hope that The Black Academy will continue to elevate and inspire the Anglophone and Francophone communities to come together and have one place in which they can build on what they’ve already started and be celebrated and honored for it, rightfully so.
You announced that the Canada Media Fund is the first official investor in The Black Academy, are you having early conversations with other partners or hope to align with any other particular organizations?
Anderson: The goal is to activate corporate Canada to really align themselves with us and stand next to us in supporting this. Canada Media Fund was the first to really believe in this, and we know that they’re not going to be the last. This is why we built an Avenger team of board of directors. It’s not lost on us that where Stephan and I will fall short, we’ll be able to lean on these individuals to access their resources to really keep this alive and go full-throttle in building this coalition. There’s many more seats that we have to fill on the board of directors and we’re excited to start filling those as well.
What kind of a process or conversation was it to name these first six board members?
James: These are people that Shamier and I have identified in their respective fields. Some of them we have past relationships with. Vanessa Craft was the former editor-in-chief at Elle Canada, and she shot a spread with myself and Winnie Harlow last year. So there was already a connection there. But ultimately, these are all individuals that are top tier in their respective fields, they’re leaders in their own communities, and they’ve been doing some version of this work already in their own line of work.
For us it was really about finding these leaders that we can align with, can identify this energy with, and to have them form this coalition, if you will, of heavy hitters who we are going to lean on. These are people who are going to be responsible for the programming that goes into The Black Academy and responsible for the infrastructure. So we’re really leaning on and looking forward to using these people and their vast networks for the ultimate bigger goal.
Now that you’ve made the announcement, what are some first steps?
Anderson: There’s a lot to do, the first obvious thing is building awareness and aligning ourselves with corporate partners that believe in this mission to make change. As we start fleshing that out we’re going to be building out committees. Each committee will look into the fundraising, the mentorship, the programming, and really our overall strategy of how we’re going to combat this issue, and how we’re going to really, most importantly, honor and amplify Black people in these sectors. Whether that be an awards show, an honor or gala, it’s just all things that are in the works. The most important thing right now is building this awareness and letting people know that it’s here, and it’s happening. And then we can find partners at a high level.
Are you hoping to also be able to align your current positions on the TIFF board with The Black Academy as it unfolds and develops?
James: Absolutely—with all of our relationships with various different entities. Certainly our relationship with TIFF has been long-lasting and they have been very supportive of us over the years. And our relationship with the Canadian Screen Awards—Shamier and I currently sit on the board of directors for the Academy of Film and Television for Canada. So these are all of the relationships that we plan to use to help build out this new wave of programming. We have multiple partners and are looking for more—not only at the corporate level, but the government level as well.
If this is something you believe in, if you want to be a part of creating positive, effective change, if you want to tackle systemic racism and be a part of contributing to accurate representation in this country, we’re calling on you. We’re calling on you to not only stand behind us, but to stand right next to us as a unified front.
How has your activism translated in terms of the roles you seek or accept on the screen?
Anderson: We’re artists through and through. We love acting, we love the film business, we love telling stories. The main thing is we’ve been so lucky to be able to tell the stories that we tell on a national stage, and I think it’s just one day at a time. At the end of the day, we always stress that we’re not politicians, we’re not government or anything. We’re just humans and we believe that we have to impact change. Because if you’re only doing it for yourself, then what’s the point? So it all depends on how that unfolds, we don’t have a crystal ball. I’ll still do an action movie. I’m sure Stephan will do another period movie. And vice versa. At this moment in time we’re really just focusing on what’s in front of us. However that unfolds or manifests, we’ll go from there. We just want to keep impacting change in every sector, and if it’s behind the camera great, if it’s in front of the camera, too, awesome. But it’s all a part of the bigger mission.
You’ve both had success in the States, why was it important for you to launch this at home in Canada?
James: It’s just not enough for us to be the only ones. We do realize that there are people who look to us and say, “Man, there hasn’t really been too many other Black actors who have amassed the success and the acclaim that you two young men have.” And, you know, the reality is, Shamier and I know that it can’t stop at us. That can’t be our only mission in life, to see our own successes go through. Because reality is, Shamier and I are a part of rarefied air, if you will.
The one percenters of Black actors coming out of Toronto, out of Canada, who were able to actually transition into having careers in the United States. You look around and realize you’re the only one, you have to look in the mirror and say, “What are you going to do about that?” Are we gonna just chill in Los Angeles and enjoy our careers and our lives, which could be easy to do? Or do we want to be a part of something that’s bigger than ourselves? It’s clear Shamier and I have chosen the latter. We’ve chosen to come back and leverage whatever power or privilege that we’ve garnered up until this point, to leverage that for the next generation to come. We don’t know all the answers, but we know that we love our people, we want to see our people be successful. We recognize that Black excellence exists in Canada, to levels in which the world is not even familiar with yet. The Black Academy has become one of the more important things that Shamier and I are going to do with our careers, even outside of anything we’ve done on film and television.