http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20060717.BOX17/EmailTPStory/TPEntertainmentA race story with a left hookA new film by Clement Virgo uses a boxing match to focus on the bigger issues of race, violence and forgiveness
Special to The Globe and Mail
HALIFAX -- The pugilist is relaxing.
On a Sunday morning, 27-year-old actor Rossif Sutherland sits on a bench at Bishop's Landing, a small retail and condominium development at the south end of Halifax's waterfront, the silvery liquid mirror of the harbour stretching out wide before him.
Over the previous few days, Sutherland had been shooting some big, intense boxing scenes in his role as Donnie, the protagonist in Clement Virgo's new film, Poor Boy's Game. Donnie is a 26-year-old white boxer who has been released from jail for beating -- outside the ring -- Earl (played by Halifax actor Corey Bowles), a young black man, nine years earlier and leaving him with severe physical and mental disabilities. Upon his release, he's challenged by an accomplished young black boxer named Ossie (Flex Alexander), a friend of Earl's family.
The role introduced Sutherland to boxing, and to the politics of class and race in Halifax. "I never hit anybody before until I got into that ring," says the half-brother of Kiefer and son of Donald and French actress Francine Racette. "I can relate to Donnie's journey, not the violence."
Set in various working-class areas of Halifax, the film uses boxing as a lens on themes such as racism, vengeance, redemption and forgiveness.
Though only in production, the film is already timely for Halifax today. Donnie's from Spryfield, a tough neighbourhood southeast of Halifax's core. As the movie cameras rolled, real-life violence erupted in the community. A business was firebombed and a house was riddled with bullets in an apparent drug-turf war.
Many residents in Spryfield allege those crimes were sparked by the shooting of a convicted cocaine dealer in Beechville, a suburb west of the city. It turns out the victim, Wayne Marriott, was a distant relative on his mother's side to Chaz Thorne, a Halifax actor who wrote and is producing Poor Boy's Game with Virgo. And they're also shooting on location in Halifax's north end, where most of Halifax's urban black population resides and where, last year, there was a string of robberies and assaults by teenaged perpetrators, each wearing a single boxing glove. .
"People do talk about it on the set," Sutherland says about the assaults, adding that, in such crimes, the races of the accused and the victim come under intense scrutiny, rather than the underlying economic, educational and social conditions that might have had more of an impact on the people involved.
Sutherland sees Donnie as a product of such circumstances. "He didn't choose. He just saw red," the actor says. "He was carrying all this anger and didn't know where to put it." But Donnie is worthy of forgiveness and capable of redemption, Sutherland continues: "He certainly has a beautiful, unexpressed romance to him."
Sutherland doesn't look much like his father or his half-brother, Kiefer. His thick hair is darker and curlier. He's got a wider, more square face, evident even under the stubble this Sunday morning. He looks like his own man. And he looks like a fighter. Months out from when cameras started rolling, Sutherland committed to a four-hour-a-day training regimen and trimmed to 182 pounds, "right underneath heavyweight [class]." The workouts included boxing, weight training, Pilates and running. "I used to be a bit chubby," he says with a smile. "But it's easy to do things when there's a good reason."
Learning how to box was a "real learning curve" for the young actor, who's appeared in ER and Monk on TV, and in independent films such as I'm Reed Fish and Red Doors. "It's a lot more than extending your arms," he says, simulating a punch. "Your whole body's in motion."
At six-foot-five, Sutherland inherited his father's height and lean frame. "I used to almost apologize for being tall," he reveals. He would almost fold himself in to diminish his height, a sensibility he's tapped into for this role. Though Donnie doesn't apologize in words, he's searching for forgiveness after he gets out of jail, particularly from the family of his victim.
"You can't really start over," Sutherland says. "You can only start from where you left off. The only way [Donnie] can move on is to be forgiven by the people who hate him the most."
Ossie, Donnie's nemesis in the ring of redemption, plans to make the fight a "public execution," according to writer-producer Thorne. Earl's father, George (played by Danny Glover), "finally decides that enough is enough in terms of his son being used as an excuse for further violence and to fuel racial tensions between the communities. He decides, after much struggle, that he's actually going to coach Donnie for the fight," Thorne explains.
That plot twist took many by surprise. "I remember people would say, 'Well, how the hell does that work?" Thorne recalls. "We have a real issue with forgiveness. We have a real difficult time accepting forgiveness -- that another human being would be capable of forgiving to that extent."
The focus on forgiveness has roots in Thorne's own life. "One of the real triggers for me was a first cousin of mine was murdered in Spryfield back in '95," Thorne says. "He was gunned down in a parking lot. The person who did that was black. There was a lot of focus on that."
Poor Boy's Game also deals with the impact of "tribalism," how it can turn personal tragedy into fuel for hatred between two communities. Thorne wants the film to challenge the view that people commit certain acts simply because of their race, forgetting about the conditions in which they live.
So does Clement Virgo. "The thing in Canada is the primary question hasn't been about race, it's been about language -- French and English," says the director. "I think we're starting to have the conversation about race. In the [United] States they've been doing it for a long time. That's been their primary conversation."
Having said that, Virgo knows he risks alienating his audience with the topic. But boxing, a sport that has lent itself well to film and has a long history in Halifax, will offer viewers another way into the story. "Boxing is a poor boy's sport," he says. "There are a lot of working-class communities in and around Halifax, and people sometimes fight their way out of communities."
One example of that is Kirk Johnson fighting his way from the predominantly black community of North Preston, near Halifax, to the global stage of the 1992 Olympic Games and renown as a professional heavyweight boxer. Still, even after launching a successful career in the ring, Johnson was pulled over by police countless times, and even had a car he was riding in impounded. He complained of racial profiling, and in a 2003 ruling, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission agreed with him.
Then there's David Downey, the one-time Canadian middleweight champion from Halifax's north end, and subject of Robert Ashe's 2005 book Halifax Champion -- Black Power in Gloves. Downey trained at the fabled Creighton Street Gym back in the sixties and seventies, around the corner from one of the film crew's locations on Maynard Street. Thorne gave copies of the book about Downey to members of the cast. "You couldn't ask for a better primer on boxing and race relations than that book," he says.
Ashe, who now lives in Ottawa, says he'd love for his book and for films like Poor Boy's Game to contribute to social change in Halifax. "I think this period of exposure is probably good for the city," he says. And perhaps Sutherland's portrayal of Donnie will help a kid decide not to give in to anger and violence.
For now, though, Sutherland just wants to prove that he can play this role and help make the film work. Early in his career, he taught himself how to stay standing when "all these things were landing on me." That knack helped him get through the gruelling training and filming of fight scenes at the gym.
"The best of me comes out when I'm overwhelmed," he says.
Maybe the same can be said for this old port town.