Today’s column was going to be all sunshine and frippery – hey, WandaVision is on disc now and that’s one more streaming property Disney can’t decide to delete from all existence! Let’s start the holiday gift guide! – but then I heard Charles Officer had died, and I’m not in a celebratory mood at all.
The thing about being a film critic is that you’re supposed to maintain a certain distance from the people who make the films, but Canada is a small town – Toronto even more so – and eventually you end up getting to know people. Charles started out as an actor – this was after his British hockey career had ended, mind you – and we’d run into each other here and there, at TIFF and various other festivals, and once he shifted focus to writing and directing he started to turn up on panels and radio shows and stuff, and sometimes we’d be on the same thing, and he always had the most thoughtful, optimistic take on whatever subject was being discussed.
Charles was consistently soft-spoken and empathetic, and it always seemed incongruous to me that this relaxed, funny person would tackle the heaviest material – but by the same token, no one else could have made Unarmed Verses and The Skin We're In and Akilla’s Escape the movies that they are. The first two are documentaries and the latter is a thriller, but take a step back and they’re all about subjects doing their best to keep other people from experiencing the oppression and trauma they’ve been through. (In a curious way, so is Invisible Essence, his 2019 examination about the creation and legacy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved children's book The Little Prince.)
Unarmed Verses is literally a study of mentorship, following the kids of Toronto’s Villaways community as they address their anxieties about losing their home to gentrification through a hip-hop lens, while The Skin We're In was a collaborative work with Toronto journalist and author Desmond Cole, adapting his book about Canada’s systemic racism into a powerful, painful testament. Check out Rad Simonpillai’s interview with Charles from NOW’s 2017 Hot Docs issue about both films, and how they work together and separately to build a larger portrait of Black life in Toronto at that particular moment in time. I wish I could say things have gotten better.
Akilla’s Escape was Charles’ first dramatic feature in over a decade – his stylistic drama Nurse. Fighter. Boy was produced in 2008 – and it’s similarly considered in the way it tells its story of a petty gangster trying to keep a scared kid from making a stupid choice that’ll determine the rest of his life. Charles found a way into familiar material by understanding the desperate humanity at its heart, and by pulling off an ingenious casting trick – which I’m still trying to protect three years later – that gives the conflicted Akilla’s own history an immediacy it might not otherwise have had.
Casting the phenomenal Saul Williams as the adult Akilla didn’t hurt, either; Charles' facility with actors was always his superpower, helping them hang entire lives on a few lines of dialogue and making sure even the most incidental characters got a moment to establish their presence. His work on the CBC series The Porter brought that to the fore, keeping the period drama from getting too didactic or stuffy. He made sure the messiness of his characters' lives wasn't sanded down by the importance of the story.
That was his thing, really: Whether it was fiction or nonfiction, Charles always found the most artful way into a story while also building an irresistible emotional momentum. It was always a pleasure to talk to him about his work, and other people’s; his SEMcast on Carlito’s Way, which took us years to actually schedule and record, was a total delight – even in the shitty circumstances of summer 2020, when everything still felt like it could end at any moment. And now it has, I suppose.
Losing Charles at such a young age (he was either 48 or 51, depending on the source; I choose to go with 48 because his energy was so goddamn youthful) means we’re robbed of all the other art he would have given us. The last thing he was working on was a remake of the Rob Lowe chestnut Youngblood, updated to reflect contemporary Canada; I was really excited to see what he'd bring to that, given his own very personal understanding of hockey.
I’m heartbroken, and honestly I barely knew him; I can’t imagine how his family and actual friends must be feeling. Fuck. Just ... yeah. "Fuck" pretty much covers it.
You can find Unarmed Verses streaming at the National Film Board of Canada, along with Charles' earlier documentary Mighty Jerome; The Skin We're In, Invisible Essence, Akilla's Escape and The Porter are all on CBC Gem.
Next week: WandaVision, which is also about grief and loss. Everything is these days, I guess.