Black Ice is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
In September 2011, during a pre-season game in London, Ontario, a White hockey fan named Christopher Moorhouse threw a banana at Philadelphia Flyers player Wayne Simmonds, one of the few Black players in the NHL. The League and the press were quick to denounce the ugly incident, but London police investigated and claimed to find "absolutely no basis to support a racially motivated act." A Justice of the Peace fined Moorhouse $200 for criminal trespass, saying he found him to be a "thoughtful" young man, who he hoped would be able to put this incident behind him and pursue his dream of (wait for it) becoming a police officer.
"We all know it's an isolated incident," Simmond's (White) teammate Max Talbot told ESPN, after the game. "It's not like there's a problem with racism in our league."
But Wayne Simmonds himself tells this story in Hubert Davis's new film Black Ice (2022), and it is just one of many painfully similar stories the documentary captures that make it clear there is, in fact, a very serious and widespread problem with racism in hockey.
Black Ice exists at the nexus of—and in order to challenge—two very important pieces of Canada's national identity: hockey (which is to Canada what baseball has been to the U.S.), and the notion of Canada as "the last stop on the Underground Railroad," the place people go to escape the racism of the States. The documentary begins with an observation in voice-over from writer-director Davis (himself a Black Canadian): “We do this thing as Canadians where if we don’t talk about it, we don’t have to take ownership of some of the more negative things that have happened," Davis says. "A lot of that history just gets lost. That’s why it’s really important to tell those stories.” It's a mission-statement for the film, and Black Ice works well when it sticks to this mission: to tell the stories, to reclaim the history, and to talk about things that don't get talked about enough.
Primarily, Black Ice is an opportunity for Black (and other non-White) players to testify to their painful and infuriating experiences, the sheer commonality of which challenges Canada's self-image as tolerant, and puts lie to the "isolated incident" defense that always greets each individual component of a racist pattern. We hear countless stories of racial taunting from coaches, parents, fans, and the media—no less infuriating than what happened to Simmonds, if rarely more imaginative—greeting players of color at every level of the sport, practically from the moment they pick up a stick. (Viewers of Black Ice should be warned they can expect to hear the N-word a lot, if nowhere near as often as the players heard it throughout their careers, usually starting in childhood.)
We hear from Nigerian-born Akim Aliu, who grew up in Cananda and has given everything he has to the sport (he had 14 surgeries before the age of 30). At every step of the way he has encountered racism he was expected to tolerate, including invective-filled abuse from his former coach Bill Peters (who resigned in the wake of Aliu's 2019 accusations), and a White equipment manager dressing up in Blackface for the Halloween party. We hear of constant racially-coded labels that limited player's careers, like Black players restricted to "physical" or "enforcer" roles, or how Blake Bolden—the first Black woman to play in the Women's National Hockey League—was kept from her Olympic dreams by a coach who inexplicably labeled her "uncoachable."
One player sums up the frustration all the players have felt: "Almost as soon as I got into the gear, the barriers started stacking up," he says. Black Ice is intended to be an exposé of racism in hockey, but these stories are so infuriatingly universal to any person of color trying to operate in a predominantly White space—whether its a locker room, a board room, or any other kind of room—that the documentary almost works best viewed as a microcosm, a small case study of the dynamics of systemic racism that just happens to focus on hockey. The aggressions and micro-aggressions will be familiar to any person of color in any profession, as will the frustration, guilt, and exhaustion of the players who have had to work so much harder, endure so much hate, swallow so much trauma, compromise so many principles, and temper their personalities and behavior so carefully, just to survive and thrive in a system that made them feel they didn't belong. (Aliu, for example, carries shame for waiting 20 years to call out the abuse he suffered at the hands of Peters, but what choice did he have? “I’m this far away from getting to the National Hockey League,” he recalls feeling, “and he holds all my cards.”)
And, of course, 'twas ever thus. Interlaced throughout Black Ice is the history Davis wants to reclaim, the story of Canada's Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHLM), which started at the end of the 19th century in Nova Scotia. As with most things, Black people took the sport of hockey and reinvented it, introducing improvements and innovations their White counterparts would later appropriate as standard. (The slap shot was pioneered in the CHLM, as was the notion that goalies could leave the net or fall on their knees to make a save.) And, as with most things, they themselves were barred from reaping the rewards. One of the most moving moments in Black Ice is an archival interview with Herb Carnegie, called the greatest Black player to never make the NHL. Carnegie breaks into tears remembering how Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe came to see him play in 1938, and then publicly joked that he would give any man $10,000 if they could turn Herb Carnegie White.
(Embedded within this history, too, are larger and more sinister patterns that further challenge the Canadian myth of racial tolerance. In telling the story of the CHLM, for example, Black Ice also tells the story of Africville, a vibrant, close-knit Black community that existed in Halifax since the mid-19th century, which was home to one of the teams, the Africville Seasides. Canadians may be shocked to learn of the history of this community, but for those of us in the U.S.—familiar with the fates of such communities like the Greenwood District in Tulsa, or Seneca Village in New York City—the story sounds all too familiar.)
So Black Ice succeeds admirably as testimony and historical reclamation. Where it falls short, perhaps—where the ice feels a little thin, if you will—is as investigation and examination. The film is to be commended for centering the voices of the individual Black players, highlighting the issues they have faced, and celebrating their resiliency and determination to not only succeed themselves but also change the culture for the next generation. (The generational tapestry Black Ice weaves is one of its most emotionally effective elements: there is a moving continuity from the oldest Black players at the turn of the century to the youngest hopefuls just finding their feet on the ice.) But there is no interrogation of League officials—or even White players and fans—and no real analysis of deeper systemic issues and policies that contribute to the problem. So the documentary is effectively descriptive, but it is disappointingly neither diagnostic nor prescriptive. This is ultimately a minor critique: it is perhaps enough that Black Ice starts the conversation, especially if Canada has, historically, been as far in denial as the film suggests. But for the American viewer south of the border (to whom these issues are so familiar, and so ubiquitous), it feels a little like Black Ice is just skating on the surface of a larger and deeper problem.