When actor Stephan James scooped up the inaugural Radius Award last year, for being a Canadian making waves globally in the entertainment industry, the Torontonian said it was a bittersweet honour.
His brother and fellow actor Shamier Anderson presented him with the award at the Canadian Screen Awards and while their family and friends were watching in the audience James said he realized: “I was probably going to be one of maybe a few Black people that were going to step on that stage that night.
“Something about it was just unsettling,” the Golden Globe-nominated star of the Amazon Prime Video series Homecoming said in a recent interview from Los Angeles.
“It was unsettling for myself, it was unsettling for Shamier.”
Anderson and James are now taking steps to change that experience for Black Canadians in various lines of work — from arts and culture to sports and science.
On Thursday, they launched The Black Academy, a new national division of their not-for-profit group B.L.A.C.K. Canada (Building A Legacy in Acting, Cinema + Knowledge), which they started about five years ago as a gala fundraiser in Toronto.
The brothers are still figuring out the details of exactly what the Black-led academy will do.
But they say it will be a permanent, year-round operation to honour, celebrate and showcase established and emerging Black talent, both anglophone and francophone, across the country.
“Shamier and I truly feel like it was our calling to have this placed on us now, and we’re stepping into that calling,” said James, whose film credits include If Beale Street Could Talk, Race and Selma.
“But the reality is, there’s been a glaring gap for a long, long time.”
Planned initiatives at the academy include awards presentations, educational programming, community outreach and panel discussions.
The bigger-picture goal: to break down barriers of discrimination and combat systemic racism in Canada for decades to come.
“That’s how you create generational change,” James said. “We’re not for the moment. We’re Black 365 days a year, we live in this experience in our own work life and our personal lives. And so this is really a place that is going to be around for the short term and for the long term.”
The Canada Media Fund is providing financial support to the academy, through its Black and People of Colour (BPOC) Sector Development initiative, but the brothers are looking for more corporate partners who share their vision and mission to combat systemic racism.
“The time is now,” said Anderson, whose credits include the series Wynonna Earp, the upcoming sci-fi thriller Stowaway and the boxing drama Bruised, which marks Halle Berry’s directorial debut.
“We’ve seen from our American counterparts that they’ve built things like the BET awards, the NAACP awards, the Soul Train Awards — and the list continues. And it’s important that in Canada we now have our platform, our stage, our infrastructure — for us, by us.”
And it’s important to change the optics in the media, he added.
“If we can get the same love that Schitt’s Creek got at the Emmys, which was so incredible, it would be so great to now see the next Black show, the next Black producer, the next Black artist, the next Black athlete,” Anderson said.
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“I was such a proud Canadian when I saw Schitt’s Creek sweep, I was like ‘Yes!’ And now I’m looking forward to having somebody who looks like us as well.”
The brothers have started to assemble what they call the academy’s Avengers board of directors team, which the brothers will co-chair.
Board members who’ve signed on so far include: Vanessa Craft, director of content partnerships at TikTok in Canada; Alica Hall, executive director of the Nia Centre for the Arts; and Wes Hall, founder of the firm Kingsdale Advisors.
Other board members include: Jennifer Holness, president of Hungry Eyes Media; Divya Shahani, an entertainment lawyer at Miller Thomson LLP; and actress-producer Tonya Williams, founder of the Reelworld Film Festival and Reelworld Screen Institute.
More than a ‘hashtag moment’
The board has only been able to meet via video conference, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the brothers are determined to launch now.
As the world faces a racial reckoning in the wake of the George Floyd killing and policy brutality protests, they want to create something that lasts longer than a “hashtag moment.”
“The reality is, we’re still breathing,” Anderson said. “We’re very fortunate. And there are other Black people who don’t have the opportunity to still be alive, to even see the next day, pandemic or not pandemic.
“So this is why seeding this and founding this now, getting ahead of the game, getting ahead of what’s to come.”
Anderson and James grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, in a northern community housing project called Bay Mills.
“They were gruelling times,” Anderson said from Toronto. “Ten years ago was a very different time in our life.”
It’s an experience they’ll never forget and it’s why they feel a responsibility to try to help others now, said the brothers, who are also ambassadors for the Equity and Inclusion Fund at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.
“If we have resistance, given our position in this industry, I can’t imagine a little Black boy or girl at [the Toronto community of] Jane and Finch who wants to get out,” Anderson said.
“Like Stephan says, you have to see it to believe it sometimes. And this is why the academy is formed. This is why two brothers under 30 are forming it with an Avenger team.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.