As family and specially invited guests prepared last Friday night to attend the debut showing of The Mighty Jerome at the Vancouver International Film Festival, director Charles Officer was nearly 2,084 miles away in Toronto rehearsing for A Raisin in the Sun which opens next week.
Officer spent three years documenting the life of the Canadian legend and Order of Canada recipient who took part in three Olympics, set seven world records and was an advocate for amateur athletes and minorities before succumbing to a brain aneurysm in December 1982.
He was unable to attend the film’s premiere because of a scheduling conflict.
“I had less than 24 hours to get there and get back here to rehearse and that would have been physically challenging,” said Officer whose debut film, Nurse.Fighter.Boy, which ran during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), was inspired by his sister’s battle with sickle cell anemia. “I would have loved to be at the premiere to see people’s reaction and answer their questions. It’s very unfortunate that I could not make it.”
A former hockey player, Officer took film crews to Vancouver where Jerome spent most of his life and is buried; Oregon where he attended university; Edmonton where Jerome’s ex-wife Wendy, their daughter Debbie and Lionel Jones, the best man at the Jerome’s wedding live and Toronto which has hosted the Harry Jerome awards – administered by the Black Business and Professional Association -for the past 28 years.
He said moving his film crews around Canada and the United States was logistically challenging while directing his first feature documentary.
Failing to convince Jerome’s sister, Valerie, to be part of the project, was a hurdle he couldn’t clear. The former elementary school teacher, who last January completed a leg of the Vancouver Winter Olympics torch relay in Trail, British Columbia with some of her brother’s 1956 summer Olympics teammates, turned down an offer to be part of the film.
“I really wanted her to be in it,” said Officer whose first directorial production, When Morning Comes, premiered at the 2000 TIFF. “It was for Harry and my appeal to her was that I didn’t know if this opportunity was going to come around again in terms of another film being produced.”
Officer, whose sophomore project, Short Hymn, Silent War, received a special jury citation for Best Canadian Short at the 2002 TIFF, said he met Valerie on four occasions, sent several e-mails and made numerous phone calls. “This was an opportunity for her to be on camera and speak her mind. Unfortunately that did not happen.”
He said that he felt as if Jerome guided him through this project. “There were things that happened along the way that came up and he moved them away.”
Officer said the most poignant part of the film for him is when Jerome tells his former coach, John Minichiello, after a serious leg injury in the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games, that he would not turn over his paraphernalia to the sports hall of fame.
Jerome tore a hamstring muscle so bad that doctors feared he would never walk again. As if the injury was not enough, Jerome had to bear the burden of being called a quitter.
“This was a guy who wasn’t supposed to walk again who went out after that injury and won gold medals and races,” said Officer. “I had no idea about that and it just blew my mind. I loved that part of the film.
“I was also specifically attracted to this part because I played hockey at a high level and tendinitis in the left wrist forced me to quit… I didn’t tear a muscle…What Harry went through as an athlete and this whole idea of him being a quitter was harsh and he didn’t deserve that label.”
The youngest of four children born in Toronto to a British father and Jamaican mother, Officer – who aspired to be an architect – left the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) to pursue a professional ice hockey contract in England. Drafted by the Calgary Flames, he returned to North America to play for the Flames farm team in Salt Lake where he developed tendinitis and quit the sport. He returned to the OCAD before attending the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York City.
Officer still follows the National Hockey League (NHL) closely and his favourite teams are the Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings. As for the players he enjoys watching, he points to Edmonton Oilers right winger Jordan Eberle, Atlanta Thrashers centre Evander Kane and Montreal Canadiens defenceman Pernell Karl (P.K.) Subban.
“The young players excite me,” said Officer who was commissioned last year to be one of the scriptwriters for Black Ice: The Lost History of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes 1895-1925.
As for now, he’s focused on the remount of A Raisin in the Sun.
“I read the play a long, long time ago and you look at it and realize it’s like Shakespeare,” he said. “It’s brilliant and the number one thing is my mother said I had to do it when she heard I was offered the opportunity to do the show.”
The award-winning production runs from October 19 to November 13 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill St., Building 49. Ticket prices range from $31.20 to $75.33 (including 13 per cent HST) and they are available at the box office at (416) 866-8666 or by visiting www.soulpepper.ca.