“Somewhere along the line the implicit assumptions of slavery had become institutionalized.” – Rodney John
September 9th 2015 – A new school year is about to commence and University campuses around the world are gearing up for an influx of fertile young minds. Within the confines of these storied institutions lies a mosaic of humanity encumbered with unending academic challenges that when nurtured, could change the world. Oh how times have changed. It wasn’t that long ago that the social and geopolitical narratives in society infected the beliefs systems of impressionable young minds kick-starting the modern day student protest movement. Set against the backdrop of the turbulent 60s, the rise of the student protest movement which challenged the establishment on substantive issues such as the Vietnam War, racism and women’s rights galvanized an entire generation. And within this era comes acclaimed Director, Mina Shum’s (Double Happiness) powerful new civil rights documentary, “NINTH FLOOR” which eerily echoes the racial tensions we’ve come to associate with the American south. But the roots of this hateful miscarriage resided not on some distant campus in a Mississippi, Alabama or Louisiana institution. No, this affront to education was strictly Canadian made and for 14 days during the bone chilling February winter in 1969, the computer centre of Sir George Williams University (Concordia) was transformed into an intractable Black-led student occupation the likes of which has not been seen before. NINTH FLOOR shows the price that some students paid for confronting injustice in an institution of higher learning.
EXPO 67 in Montreal may have trumpeted a rosy image of diversity and harmony to the world community but that memo didn’t trickle down to Assistant Biology Professor, Perry Anderson’s lectures; the brunt of which took particular aim at international students from the Caribbean. Terrance Ballantyne’s (original complainant) pointed narrative on these not so subtle academic transgressions and the separate but definitely not equal tact taken by Anderson at the expense of Black students was the spark that lit the fuse. His course gave significantly lower grades to Black students for lab work that was identical to that of their white counterparts. Ballantyne was subsequently joined by a cohort of complainants; Allan Brown, Kennedy Fredrick, Wendell Goodin, Rodney John and Douglas Mossop reinforcing the ground swell of support. The over-arching presumption that somehow international students of Caribbean descent were (across the board) intellectually inferior to that of their Canadian / European counterparts remained core to Anderson’s belief system. Shum methodically dismantles this flawed assertion time and time again through a myriad of Caribbean and non-Caribbean voices and in stirring clarity delivers a smartly crafted meritorious juxtaposition to the have nots which comes full circle in the last act.
“The promises can never ever match up to the reality of existence. And for those people who might have conflated EXPO 67 with the Canadian experience; well that would have been an error in judgement.” – Rodney John
What started out as a partisan administrative grievance with no clearly delineated guidelines merged into the early stages of civil-disobedience. Add to that the fractured lines of communication and the untenable position two black professors (Davis and Bayne) faced while serving on the University Hearing Committee regarding Anderson and one quickly sees any equitable solution was never in the offing. As the negotiating chasm widened events quickly devolved into a fiery inferno of violence with over 100 students being arrested; and still to this day the mystery remains with no clear admission of whom or what had caused the fire which resulted in $2 million in damages.
Shum pushes a fair and balanced directive with an engrossing narrative that illuminates much needed light on one of Canada’s darkest chapters in race relations. A chapter some would be all too happy to keep buried. By adding a critical perspective to all sides of this equation we are afforded a rationale for Perry Anderson’s action. No not from the man himself but from someone who knows him best, his son Duff. Interview styled exposes from Caribbean students, former professors’, legal counsel and the university administration provided sobering reflections from events so long ago that we are able to glean new clarity on the anatomy of Sir George Williams University’s civil unrest. The effects of racism didn’t just affect Black students as the inclusive nature of NINTH FLOOR also captured the scourge of anti-Semitism through the student / activist lens of Robert Hubsher. Colour lines began to blur as the race issue gained traction within the wider and whiter student body.
“The explicit racism of yesteryear has given way to the implicit racism of today.” Marvin Coleby – Former President of 2011 Caribbean Student Union.
With a visually bleak aesthetic framing NINTH FLOOR, Shum is to be lauded for maintaining an effective grey scale of dark cement corridors, underground commuter vistas and grainy archival footage that marries perfectly with the grittiness of the films core struggle. It is worth bearing note that Kennedy Fredrick, one of the leading proponents in this fight for justice could easily be our Huey P. Newton, our Stokley Carmichael at the vanguard of the Canadian student movement.
VERDICT 4/5: Canadians are quick to trumpet our historical narratives as a welcoming society and to some extent we are, but buried deep within these narratives is the not so welcoming underbelly of those immigrants that met the high watermark and still were kept out. From the Chinese head-tax levied on Asian immigrants to curb immigration to the 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany who were summarily refused and sent back to their death – these chapters were written with suppression in mind. With this history as a signpost it’s not much of a leap that institutionalized racism at Sir George Williams University could bear such strange fruit within the Canadian corridors of higher learning. NINTH FLOOR plays out like an engaging chess match between two grandmasters with the passage of time between each strategic move looming ever omnipresent. With four feature films to her credit and NINTH FLOOR her first feature documentary, Shum and Producer Selwyn Jacob have established their PBS style investigative cred with this latest offering that will have many documentarians looking anxiously for her next release.
Sometimes paying the price for higher learning can mean death.
Genre: Documentary, Civil Rights, History, Discrimination
Writer /Director: Mina Shum
Producer: Selwyn Jacob
Executive Producer: Shirley Vercruysse
Editor: Carmen Pollard
Director of Photography: John Price
Composer: Brent Belke
Premiere: WORLD PREMIERE
Runtime: 81 minutes
Production Company: National Film Board of Canada
Cast: Rodney John, Clarence Bayne, Senator Anne Cools, Nantali Indongo, Robert Hubsher, Noel Lyon, Claude-Armand Sheppard, Marvin Coleby, Duff Anderson, Naim Indongo-Bangoura, Bukka Rennie, Terrence Ballantyne, Valerie Belgrave, Hugo Ford, Lynne Murray, Mark Chang