By Justine Kraemer, GAC Volunteer Writer
Some of the best documentaries manage to blend the past and present, to create a meditation on where a community is set to go next. So it is with Dear Jackie. The stunning visuals and expansive storytelling spotlighting Canada’s Black community make for an immersive experience. Combine all of this with archival footage interspersed with people telling their story in the present day, and you have a documentary that will not be soon forgotten.
Dear Jackie is director Henri Pardo’s ode to the Black community of Montreal, or “Little Burgundy”, also known as the Harlem of the North. While this community is traced through generations of being subjected to racism, everything is brought back as a love letter to Jackie Robinson, the first professional baseball player to break the colour barrier. The city of Montreal played an integral role in launching Robinson’s career.
Dear Jackie effectively disabuses the viewer of the myth that Canada is somehow a racism-free utopia that welcomes all races and creeds to live together in peace. This has never been a Canadian reality, in spite of whatever myths we Canadians may tell ourselves. So many white liberal Canadians cling to the myth that Jackie Robinson was subjected to intense racism while training with the Brooklyn Dodgers, until he was welcomed by the Montreal Royals.
Pardo gives viewers a massive wake-up call, by spotlighting the violent racism that pervades Montreal, Quebec, and Canada. It’s clear that the Black community in Montreal still holds great reverence for Robinson, and everything that he accomplished. Rather than idolizing Robinson, the documentary examines the community in which he found himself for one season. After he left, and became Jackie Robinson, the community remained, and continued to forge their own destiny.
The strength of Dear Jackie is how beautifully it incorporates the community’s words to Jackie Robinson. There’s a direct line to the past, how the city propelled the first Black professional baseball player to stardom, and the racist undercurrents that have always existed here. Through all of the racism being hurled at the community, Dear Jackie manages to elevate the story of a thriving community.
Activists currently working in their community are given a venue to explore current issues they face in the city, and more broadly in Canada. Generations of these activists tell their stories. It’s frankly disheartening to hear how racism and white supremacy continue to cast a long shadow. It’s also awe-inspiring to see how each generation has come up with ways to succeed and triumph over adversity in their own times.
Showcasing each interviewee individually is the right choice for a movie like this. These narratives are woven together poetically. Each story could honestly be given its own documentary feature. Every voice is unique, and it’s an example of how much the current generation has to learn from elders. The older generation isn’t worshiped without context, however. Their accomplishments and struggles are allowed to stand for themselves.
Dear Jackie also speaks to the police violence that remains an existing threat to the community. Activists give voice to the visceral exhaustion that the community experiences, facing this day-to-day. It’s heartbreaking. One can’t watch and listen to these stories without being impacted on a fundamental level. While allowing viewers to process these emotions, the documentary asks viewers to examine not only themselves, but the systems in which they exist.
Dear Jacky is a deeply moving and incredibly powerful look at the history, present, and future at a community that is integral to the fabric of Canadian society. It never relies on hyperbole when considering Jackie Robinson’s legacy. Instead, it’s a gentle and authentic meditation on an entire community and the challenges and successes they experience today. The blending of past and present informs viewers of the future and hope that exists in this community. The stunning imagery just brings everything together perfectly. Viewers will walk away with a call to action which comes from a place of deep, radical love.
The 2022 Guelph Film Festival ran from November 14-26, 2022.