There is an innocent moment in Ninth Floor when Mina Shum’s camera briefly focuses on a baby boy. At the time it is not clear that this is the grandson of activist Kennedy Fredericks, not that it matters though. The baby’s lineage does little to quell the tinge of sadness that unexpectedly hits the viewer as the powerful realization sinks in that the child will have a long hard road ahead of him simply due the colour of his skin.
In a year where issues of race have ignited heated debates and inspired activism movements, Shum’s film feels both timely and timeless all at the same time. Focusing her documentary on one of the biggest student uprisings in Canadian history, Shum presents an eye-opening look at how racism and injustice is not limited by geographical boundaries.
Exploring the events that led up to the infamous 1969 occupation of Sir George Williams University’s computer lab by 400 students, Ninth Floor weaves a powerful tale of intolerance and redemption. Sparked by allegations of racism from six Caribbean students about their professor, Perry Anderson, the incident exposed a deep rooted prejudice that flowed underneath the surface of not only the school administration, but within the community as a whole. Instead of investigating the allegations in an equitable manner, the university inadvertently fanned the flames of an uprising through their overall arrogance. Spurred by the administration’s deceitful tactics, the students decided to hold a peaceful protest within the Hall Building on January 29, 1969. Their goal was to stage a sit in until the matter was properly addressed.
When negotiations broke down on February 11, 1969 tension on both sides had reached a fevered pitch. As riot police descended on the building, and computer cards descended from the windows like flakes of snow, things quickly dissolved into chaos as violence and a mysterious fire had the protestors inside the building fearing for their lives.
Speaking with several of the students (Anne Cools, Terrance Ballantyne, etc) that lived through the ordeal, Shum paints a harrowing and horrifying portrait of systemic racism within Canada. The Caribbean students were seen as the “other” from the moment they first set foot on campus. They were perceived to be inherently violent and lacking intelligence simply because of the pigment of their skin. A chill runs down the viewer’s spine upon hearing one of the activists recount being trapped in the lab when the fire broke out, who set the fire is still a source of speculation, while hearing the white protesters outside chanting for them to burn.
While parallels between the Sir George Williams incident and the current Black Lives Matter era can be found, Ninth Floor hits the point home that not much has really changed. Racism is more implicit now than it was in the 1960s which is why fighting against an inherent fear of the “other” is as important as ever. It is not merely a black and white issue, it is a human one. Ninth Floor is a powerful and moving reminder of why it is important to stand united against all that threatens equality. Those who merely stay seated on the sidelines are only helping to further perpetuate the injustice.
Saturday, September 12, 7:15 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Monday, September 14, 2:00 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Ticket information can be found at the TIFF website.