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Concerns raised over upcoming Washington Black film production in Shelburne, N.S. – Halifax | Globalnews.ca


Two Nova Scotians are concerned an upcoming Disney miniseries to be filmed in Shelburne will tokenize the Black community and profit from their stories without benefiting them – especially as a predominantly Black neighbourhood continues to grapple with tainted drinking water.

Washington Black, based on the novel of the same name by Canadian author Esi Edugyan and starring Sterling K. Brown, is set to begin filming in the spring. It tells the story of a boy who escapes slavery at a Barbados sugar plantation and flees to the small southwestern Nova Scotian town of Shelburne.

The story is fictional, but the history behind it is real. The area, which includes Birchtown, was once the largest free Black settlement in North America following the arrival of Black Loyalists in the late 1700s.

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But the Black Loyalists also faced racism and discrimination, and were targeted by one of the earliest recorded race riots in North America. More than 1,000 Black Loyalists would end up fleeing Shelburne to settle in Freetown, Sierra Leone, by the end of the 1700s.

In previous media interviews, Shelburne’s mayor has touted the economic benefits the Washington Black miniseries could bring to the small town.

But Vanessa Hartley and Shekara Grant say the town has thus far failed to highlight how these economic benefits could impact the community the story is based upon.

The two women note that contaminated drinking water continues to plague the town’s Black community, in one of the province’s most prominent examples of environmental racism.

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Hartley, who is chair of the South End Environmental Injustice Society (SEED), said showing enthusiasm for the production while failing to fix the water issue shows a level of “performative activism.”

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“We can post about African Heritage Month … but when you can’t help a Black community access potable drinking water that nobody else in this town suffers from, I think that’s the real issue,” she said.

“It looks really great to have a production come down and do this story, but what looks even better is actually having a town that recognizes that we do have a Black community.”

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For more than 70 years, a landfill in Shelburne received the region’s waste products. Everything from heavy metals to yard waste was dumped in its location at the south end of town — an area that has been historically Black. The dump closed in 2016.

Research from SEED and the ENRICH Project suggests contaminants from the landfill entering the water supply could be linked to the elevated rates of cancer found among African Nova Scotians in the area.

Shelburne was featured as an example of environmental racism among Black and Indigenous communities in the book There’s Something in the Water by social scientist and ENRICH Project director Ingrid Waldron.

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Acclaimed actor Elliot Page later made a film of the same name, and even offered to pay for a new well for the community.

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But Hartley — who added that she and her family have access to drinking water — said SEED is still installing UV filtration systems to help with bacteria in the well “in hopes that folks can have access to clean drinking water.”

Grant, a founding member of the Change is Brewing collective, wrote about her concerns about the film production in an open letter posted to social media, which has since gained hundreds of likes. She said she also sent the letter to Shelburne’s mayor before she posted it.

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While she stressed that the letter doesn’t speak for anyone else, Grant said since posting it publicly, she has heard from a number of others who also say they felt “off” about the production.

When she first heard about the miniseries, Grant, who is from Cherry Brook, said she was “very excited” and saw it as a “great opportunity,” especially given the context of the miniseries being filmed in Shelburne.

However, as she started to research the project more, she noticed that no Black people were interviewed in any of the news articles she read about it.

“That’s when I started to realize, this might not be what we need in the community right now,” she said.

Shekara Grant wrote an open letter about her concerns for the upcoming film production of Washington Black.

Submitted by Shekara Grant

Hartley agreed. She said she found out about the production through social media and questioned why members of the Black community weren’t consulted about it first.

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“How come we had no idea what was going to be happening in our own community, with our own stories?” she asked, adding that having this sort of consultation would help give the series more dimension.

“These aren’t stories that you can make up. These are real deep truth traumas and oral-told stories from families and generations past, and I think being able to go into the community and listen to them, and really focus on that message, would inspire them to write and to produce something so much more intentional to our community.”

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Both Hartley and Grant said they have brought their concerns to the town and have yet to receive a response.

While Grant said the water issue is the “focal point” of their concerns, it’s reflective of a larger problem of failing to recognize the history and the many contributions the Black community has made in Shelburne over the years, decades, and centuries.

“The bigger issue is that this community is not being recognized or taken care of,” she said.

“This was the largest Black settlement outside of Africa. That’s something that we should be celebrating, that’s something we should be teaching at schools.”

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Hartley also said she made recommendations to the town about a year ago on how to be more inclusive of African Nova Scotian history, which included putting a Black Loyalist on the town sign, or displaying more signage on the town’s waterfront.

To her knowledge, her recommendations have not been implemented.

“There’s nothing really to present our history on the waterfront or even within our town,” said Hartley.

Shelburne’s mayor, Harold Locke, did not respond to Global News’ request for comment. Reached by phone, a person working at the town hall asked that all media requests related to these concerns be directed to Disney.

Global News emailed a spokesperson for Disney asking if any consultation with the Black community took place, but the company did not respond in time for publication.

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