Documentary will bring Harry Jerome’s story to life


As an ardent track and field fan in his native Trinidad & Tobago, Selwyn Jacob was surprised when a local newspaper reported that a Canadian sprinter would be participating in the Southern Games in the early 1960s.

The sprinter turned out to be Harry Jerome, who failed to show up for the meet. What, however, caught Jacob’s attention was that Canada had a world-renowned sprinter.

“At the time, the top sprinters came from Jamaica and the United States, so you could understand my amazement,” he said.

Jacob migrated to Canada in 1966 to pursue studies in physical education at the University of Alberta. As fate would have it, Jerome who, by then, was retired and employed by the Ministry of Sport, paid a visit to the university.

“I was the only Black person in the class and we made eye contact,” recalled Jacob who graduated in 1970 with a Bachelor of Education degree. “While I was at university, I noticed there was a bias towards Harry and there was this one professor who I took a class from who referred to Harry as the athlete who quit. That never left me.”

Prior to the 1960 Rome Olympics, Canadian sports writers had established Jerome as the favourite to win the sprint gold medal. But when an injury in the final pre-race heat forced him to withdraw, many in the mainstream media branded him a quitter.

Jacob, who went on to study cinematography and has taken pride in producing Black films, was determined to set the record straight.

“When I came to work for the National Film Board (NFB) in 1997, I did not have the wherewithal to select my projects,” he said. “Fil Fraser sent me the manuscript of the book he wrote about Harry and I thought this thing had the potential to be turned into a film. Two years ago, my boss asked me what films I wanted to make and I said the Harry Jerome story. He asked me why I was not proceeding with it and I told him I did not think there was a director in Vancouver who could cover that story the way it needs to be done.

“My boss asked me why I was restricting myself to Vancouver and he told me to go across the country and select the best director and we will make the story. Little did I know then there was a change in NFB philosophy that provided me with the flexibility to choose the best people. Back in the day when I worked in the province, I had to choose people from that region.”

To coincide with last month’s 27th annual Harry Jerome awards in Toronto, filmmaker Charles Officer began production on the feature length documentary, Harry Jerome, that’s due to be released in the fall of 2010.

“I interviewed a number of people, but there was something about Charles that stood out,” said Jacob, who has produced or directed more than 20 films since joining the NFB as the Special Mandate producer for Cultural Diversity for Western and Pacific Centres. “His career has evolved in the past year and that proves that I have made the right choice.”

Officer co-wrote and directed the feature film, Nurse. Fighter. Boy., which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.

“Heroes are lost in the passing of time,” said Officer, who played professional hockey in Europe for a year and was drafted by the Calgary Flames before suffering a career-ending injury while playing for an NHL farm team. “Twenty seven years after his death, Harry Jerome’s accomplishments as an athlete and social activist embody the perseverance of the human spirit.

“He was, at one time, the fastest man on the planet and his story is African Canadian.”

Jacob said the documentary, which has been in development for the past year, will focus mainly on Jerome’s athletic career from the time he equaled Percy Williams’ national high school record with a 10-second run in the 100-yard dash in March 1959 to his last official race in August 1969, when he defended his Canadian title, clocking 10.5 seconds over 100-metres.

The film will also look at the principal women in his life, including his mother, Elsie, who is in a Vancouver nursing home, daughter, Debbie and former wife, Wendy, who is considered one of Canada’s leading sports psychologists.

“I have been fascinated by this story,” said Jacob, whose credits include acclaimed documentaries such as Jeni LeGon-Living in a Great Big Way, which was honoured by the United States National Black Programming Consortium for its portrait of one of the first Black women entertainers in Hollywood, and The Journey of Lesra Martin. “Many people know the name but not the real story behind the man. The documentary will bring his life and story back into the public’s mind.

“He’s known in Vancouver for his track and field prowess and here (in Toronto), he’s known for his contribution to the legacy that is the Harry Jerome awards. If we bridge that gap, I think we will have a real national story.”

The documentary will be shot in Edmonton where Debbie and Wendy reside and in Vancouver where Harry spent most of his life and is buried.

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