MONTREAL — It seems like every year Quebec’s artistic community delves into an irreconcilable debate about the portrayal of black or brown-skinned figures in an entertainment universe dominated by white people.
Too often for many, the solution has been to resort to “blackface” or, at least, black makeup. Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, Edmonton Oilers enforcer Georges Laraque and Boucar Diouf, a Senegalese biologist turned Quebec radio host, have all been subject to the treatment. They didn’t ask for it, but they were forced into the eye of a vicious storm.
It is different this time around. The subject of the controversy is white — the prolific actor and producer Louis Morissette — and he brought it on himself.
Morissette published a column in the popular magazine run by his wife, Véronique Cloutier, complaining about an intolerable climate of political correction run amok.
He was bitter that reticent Radio-Canada officials had forced him to hire a black actor to play the part of a disgraced black journalist who was being lampooned in a New Year’s Eve review show that he produces each year. He blamed the province’s diversity activists, calling them “mosquitoes” who refuse to let up until getting their way.
The fallout over the last two weeks in newspaper columns, denunciatory petitions and tit-for-tat condemnations has been fierce. But it has not been productive in resolving an issue that echoes the American protests about the absence of Oscar-nominated black actors and serves any schoolteacher here looking to make Black History Month relevant to students.
Beneath the “blackface” headlines lies a more profound struggle to add colour to the province’s screens and stages. It’s one AngeLo Cadet recalls first trying to address nearly 30 years ago as a student and aspiring TV personality.
“It was 1987 and I was sick of hearing that there were no black actors or not enough black actors,” said Cadet, who is of Haitian descent. “I was sick of it and there were another 40 people at my house (who felt the same) as well as others who couldn’t make it.”
Cadet got his start with MusiquePlus, the francophone equivalent of Much Music, which he said was consciously built as a “cosmopolitan village”: one that gave him and others of colour a foothold in the entertainment industry.
That model has rarely been repeated, even as the faces of the province come in increasingly different shades. As an opinion piece in Montreal newspaper Le Devoir noted, TV screens still feature different shades of white where blacks are relegated to thugs and gangsters, and Muslims play terrorists.
“Today, television isn’t a reflection of the society but of one society,” says Cadet, suggesting that viewers from minority communities are tuning out as a result.
Some of the talent has also turned away. Sarah St-Fleur, 30, is a plus-size model, standup comedian and actress of Haitian origin who left Montreal for Toronto last fall in frustration at the lack of opportunities.
“I had big dreams that didn’t really fit my packaging,” she said.
St-Fleur wanted to be on TV. She went for auditions but was repeatedly passed over in favour of entertainers who were petite and, invariably, white.
It took the head of a modelling agency to put her career goals in perspective, explaining that limited budgets and performance pressures in the Quebec entertainment world meant producers and directors would opt every time for low-risk, tried-and-tested actors.
Do the lights shine brighter for entertainers of colour outside Quebec? Suggesting so is as controversial as claiming the right to apply black paint to a white actor’s face. But one can’t help but note the one major change to the English-language adaptation of 19-2, which began as a French-language police drama, was casting Adrian Holmes, whose family traces back to Barbados, as lead character Nick Barron.
Cadet says the tendency in Quebec for white stories to be told by white actors is a holdover from they days when francophones were oppressed by anglophone power brokers.
Jérôme Pruneau, executive director of Diversité artistique Montréal, is more focused on moving forward than falling back into old debates.
His organization was created to lobby for more inclusive screens and stages in the province and he said progress has been made. There are regular consultations with producers to raise their awareness and propose solutions. There is support available for artists from cultural communities. This spring, the group will start offering counselling to organizations seeking to boost diversity.
Start by dropping the often indefensible description of an actor’s skin colour at casting call, says Cadet, when it is a simply a director’s preference rather than an integral character trait.
“The reflex should be that I’m the director and I want to see all the actors. Whether they are Haitian or Asian, I don’t care,” he said. “I want an incredible cast that will also reflect Quebec and that people will listen to because they see themselves in it.”