By RON FANFAIR
It has been 25 years since Mitzi Benjamin-Allen signed off as a general assignment reporter with what was then called CFTO-TV (now CTV Toronto).
As the CTV station’s first Black female broadcast journalist, she was on top of the world. So why leave after five years?
“I was in a high-profile position making good money and I was single without children and a mortgage,” said Benjamin-Allen who migrated from Antigua & Barbuda with her family at age seven. “But I wanted more for myself. I aspired to be a producer.”
After five years on the job, she packed up and returned to her birth country in 1991.
“I went back thinking I could be a very useful asset in media,” said Benjamin-Allen. “It didn’t quite work out because I didn’t do my research. If I had done that, I would have realized that the government, more or less, controlled the message.”
Hope and possibility soon replaced gloom and doom. While employed as a producer and production manager with CTV Entertainment Systems in Antigua, she met Howard Allen who was in her department.
They produced a high-quality news and current affairs program and started HAMA (derived from their initials), a film and television production company.
Before pursuing broadcast journalism, Benjamin-Allen intended to pursue a career in theatre. But her parents would have none of it. Allen, on the other hand, has a passion for filmmaking.
They were a perfect match.
The couple got married 24 years ago and released their first feature film in 2001.
The Sweetest Mango is a romantic comedy that recounts the couple’s love story. The first feature movie to emerge from the Eastern Caribbean and the biggest grossing film ever to show in Antigua is archived at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Lightbox reference library because of its historical significance.
The library maintains the world’s largest resource of English-language Canadian film and film-related materials as well as a wide range of local, national and international film resources.
In a recent article in Zing, the Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT) complimentary magazine, The Sweetest Mango is listed among five Caribbean movies made in the last five decades to hunt down and watch. The others are The Harder They Come, Smile Orange, Sugar Cane Alley and SistaGod.
“That is a huge honour and validation for the work we are doing,” said Benjamin-Allen. “It also says I made the right decision in returning to Antigua when I did. I could easily have packed it in and come back to Toronto, especially after Hurricane Luis struck (in 1995) and we were without water and electricity for three months. Howard, however, convinced me that Antigua is a place where we need to be to contribute and make a difference. He was right.”
The St. Joseph’s College School and Humber College journalism graduate worked for a decade in the 1980s in Canadian media, including a stint with CFMT-TV (Channel 47) which hired her as a production assistant after an internship.
Responsible for writing the news in English that was translated into several languages at the multi-lingual TV station, Mitzi Benjamin and a cameraman were dispatched to Jamaica when Hurricane Gilbert struck in September 1988.
“That was huge for Channel 47 because they were the first Canadian TV network to have someone on the ground in Jamaica,” she said.
On her return to Toronto, she was head-hunted by CFTO.
“They spoke to someone who taught me at Humber and he obviously had good things to say about me,” she said. “They put me through the ringer in the interview process before I was hired.”
She was among a handful of Black female TV personalities at the time.
Media training and crisis management specialist, Bodine Williams who is also of Antiguan heritage, was a national TV reporter with CTV National News; Ona Fletcher was a CBC TV anchor/reporter and Nerene Virgin hosted CFTO’s “Eye on Toronto”.
Working at a major TV station was a huge learning platform for Benjamin-Allen.
“I felt like I was still in school because I was learning from some of the best newsmen and women in the industry,” she said. “At the time, CFTO was transitioning from film to video and most of the senior people were hardcore news people. I was fortunate to learn from some of the best camera people in the industry, including one who covered World War II.”
Benjamin-Allen covered several major news stories, including late South African president Nelson Mandela’s first visit to Canada just four months after he was released from prison in February 1990 and the Dubin Inquiry into steroid use by athletes precipitated by Ben Johnson’s positive drug test at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“I got pretty close to Mandela on several occasions during that visit and the only reason I didn’t try to get a photo with him was because I was too shy,” she said. “I also remember trying to do an interview with Ben during the inquiry and him turning around and yelling, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself’, to me.”
She also covered extensively the province’s race relations and policing inquiry in the late 1980s.
“I was embroiled in that soon after I went to CFTO and I recall people saying, ‘the Black girl just arrived and they have thrown her straight into the fire’,” said the daughter of veteran Antiguan journalist, Milton Benjamin.
Though based in Antigua, Toronto is still close to Benjamin-Allen’s heart.
Her mother, who celebrates her 75th birthday in the next few weeks, and younger sister reside in the Greater Toronto Area and she has maintained relationships with friends and colleagues she met and worked with before relocating to the Caribbean.
She and her husband also enjoy attending the annual TIFF and Caribbean Tales Film Festivals.
“For us, coming to the festival season here is like going to film school,” said Benjamin-Allen. “An important part of the development of any independent filmmaker is to expose themselves to what is happening in the industry, to network and basically learn so we can develop our craft. I have also enjoyed being part of the Caribbean Tales Incubator program. Toronto is just a great place to be at this time of year.”
They are now working on their fifth feature film, Deep Blue, which is an environmental thriller with an international cast, including her schoolmate and Toronto-based award-winning actor and filmmaker, Valarie Buhagiar.
It’s expected to be released in 2018.