The documentary Oscar Peterson: Black + White won four Canadian Screen Awards this week, but director Barry Avrich has since apologized after he drew criticism over a comment he made in his acceptance speech.
The film won the prize for best biography or arts documentary program or series. It also earned Avrich the award for best direction, documentary program.
“There are so many Black stories in Canada that need to be told. It doesn’t matter who tells them, we just need to tell them,” Avrich said in his acceptance speech Monday night.
That remark prompted several organizations to respond publicly, saying that Avrich was undermining the importance of giving opportunities to Black filmmakers and storytellers.
“I am truly sorry I misspoke, causing my words to be misinterpreted as anything but support for Black creatives telling their stories,” Avrich said in a statement to CBC News on Thursday.
“Of course it matters who tells stories; intentionality, lived experience, an anti-oppression stance matter. I am committed to continuing to be a strong supporter of redressing the imbalance that has historically existed and continues to be a challenge for Black and other traditionally underrepresented creators.”
The Black Screen Office was among Avrich’s critics, stating that it “vehemently disagrees” with the director’s remark.
“The BSO congratulates Barry Avrich for his CSA win, but we are deeply disturbed that he would use this as a platform to make such a self-serving point in his acceptance speech,” Jennifer Holness, chair of the BSO’s board of directors, said in a statement. “Mr. Avrich, I’d like to emphatically let you know that it does matter. Until recently, we Black filmmakers have faced massive systemic and structural bias that allowed very few of us to make work, never mind to obtain the access and craftsmanship you have gotten over your career. Opportunities are finally opening up for us to tell our stories, and we must be given the support and funding to do this work.”
Holness added: “Who gets to tell our story is as vital as the story itself.”
The Reelworld Film Festival and the Indigenous Screen Office also responded to Avrich’s remark, with the former calling the comments “extremely disheartening.”
“For decades, white directors have enjoyed the privilege of telling Black, Indigenous, Asian and South Asian stories with no reproach,” the Reelworld Film Festival said in a statement. “Diverse creators have fought — with much effort and little success — to receive equitable access to funds and distribution to tell the stories of their communities. Only in the past few years has the industry at large recognized this oversight and made efforts to give some control and support to those artists.”
The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, which runs the Canadian Screen Awards, addressed Avrich’s speech in its own statement posted to Twitter.
“This week has mostly been a joyful celebration of a diverse set of nominees and winners … who are producing work that is imaginative, world class and authentic,” it said. “It is clear, however, that there is still much work to be done in dismantling the system that has stood in the way of diverse voices being rightfully heard. It does matter.”
At the Canadian Screen Awards, producer Mark Selby also claimed the Barbara Sears Award for best visual research. The sound department of Doug McClement, Richard Spence-Thomas, Teresa Morrow and Gary Vaughan won the title of best sound, non-fiction.
The documentary was also nominated for best writing, documentary, and best picture editing, documentary. Both of those awards went to TVO’s Ghosts of Afghanistan.
With a total of six nominations, the film earned the most nods of any documentary this year.
Oscar Peterson: Black + White traces the legendary Canadian pianist’s ascent into the upper echelons of jazz royalty, while also focusing on the racism he faced throughout his career and the mentorship he provided to younger musicians. The documentary features interviews with and performances by Quincy Jones, Jon Batiste, Ramsey Lewis, Billy Joel, Dave Young, Larnell Lewis, Jackie Richardson, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Robi Botos and more.