Film Review: Willie

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I had the privilege of watching the documentary Willie recently, which premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival in April. Willie, tells the life story of Willie O’Ree from his early days when he couldn’t quite decide between baseball or hockey, to his career threatening eye-injury and his NHL call-up, and concludes with the day he finds out he will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is a story about the burden of being the first and only of your time. It’s a story that definitely needs to be understood in its entirety and, in my opinion, Montreal-born director, Laurence Mathieu-Leger did a pretty good job of telling it. But I have some footnotes to add :)

What I appreciated most about Willie is that it draws a line from the racism that O’Ree experienced 60 years ago to the racism that continues to be experienced today. If you’re a dedicated Hockey in Society reader, you may remember that in our review of Soul on Ice from 2017 (another important contribution), Brett and I took issue with the fact that racism was largely framed as an issue of the past — as something we have overcome. Funny thing is that O’Ree isn’t exactly the one who connects those dots, rather it’s the younger players who are featured in the film such as Devante Smith-Pelly, Wayne Simmonds, Kelsey Koelzer, and Sydney Kinder. In my opinion, even though Smith-Pelly and Simmonds share their experiences, it is Kinder who does the necessary work of complicating the racialized experience in hockey. Master’s Student and Ice Hockey in Harlem graduate/coach, Sydney Kinder explains:

Segregation is not as long ago as people think, it’s not just a chapter in a history book. It’s still present. One of the first games I played when I transferred to a school up north, someone called me an N-word on the ice and it was so shocking to me. I lost it. And then, how do you react? Do you go with class or do you want to fight back? You’re just caught between a rock and a hard place.

(Gender Side Rant: The narrative is buttressed by NHL footage of Smith-Pelly and Simmonds, and even black and white footage of O’Ree, but there is no footage of Koelzer playing in the NWHL for the Riveters because there is no archive of NWHL footage! She talks about winning the Isobel Cup…and then we see Smith-Pelly score a goal.)

O’Ree only sparingly uses the word racist or racism throughout the film, despite the fact that he faces so much of it. His friends point out that he is “tight-lipped” about the “unkind” things he has faced. He, like many people, often referred to racist incidents as “racial [something],” or he would talk around the word followed by the all-too-familiar disclaimer: “it didn’t bother me.” Maybe all the racist epithets didn’t bother him, but when he talks about the game where a white player butt-ended him in the face, called him some names, and stood over him laughing, it seems like that bothered him. O’Ree asked himself if he wanted to continue to play and deal with “this abuse” every game? He decided to forge ahead but the question in and of itself indicates that the incessant racism was bothersome to him.

The “it didn’t bother me,” disclaimer is a common story that racialized people tell white audiences as an affirmation of strength rather than of truth; in other words, we won’t let white supremacy deter us. It’s the line we use to deflect hate. We’re not going to give you the satisfaction of knowing you hurt us, but rest assured it is hurtful. I hear it from players I have interviewed, I hear it from racialized media, I read it in magazines. The problem, however, is that “it didn’t bother me,” is often a reflective answer – it doesn’t bother me anymore. When it happens in our youth — for example, the first time one is marked as Other or the first time one is called the N-word etc. — it is bothersome and jarring. Therefore, as mentors who share their experiences with today’s youth about surviving racism, I contend that it is more beneficial to acknowledge the hurt. O’Ree flat out states the adage, “Names will never hurt you unless you let them,” but we know this is an old school perspective that needs to be updated. Verbal abuse affects mental health; thus, if/when someone like Willie O’Ree uses the word racism and racist, it creates space for others to use the word. If someone like O’Ree says “it hurt,” this admission gives permission to others to acknowledge their own pain as a collective experience. We are literally witnessing what happens when we do not identify racist behaviour and language in American politics — it reproduces itself; it lives without consequences. Identifying racism enables others to recognize their own pain and trauma as externally imposed, as something that needs to be fixed in society. If racism doesn’t exist by name and it doesn’t bother us then why should we pay any attention to it? Even when O’Ree recounted the bomb threats that he received from white supremacists declaring they would blow up the MCI Stadium during a Willie O’Ree All-Star game for kids in Washington, D.C., the word racism is used very sparingly by the three men telling the story. That seems like an appropriate time to call it what it is.

Additionally, there is definitely an “Angel Complex” angle to the film. In other words, Canada comes off better than it probably should because it is represented as this haven for Black citizens where they are “largely immune” from the racism that existed in the Jim Crow South. If we’re trying to write more accurate versions of history by telling inclusive histories then this narrative is counter productive because Canada also participated in slavery and some of the enslaved chose to escape to Vermont when it was abolished there in 1777. There was also no mention of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes even though O’Ree grew up in the Fredericton, New Brunswick. [Learn more about hockey’s connection to slavery through The History of Hockey podcast’s 4-part series.]

The other warning I’ll heed is to those who write about the film or O’Ree’s life. We need to be cautious about the notion that O’Ree “broke” the colour barrier. He was the first Black player to be allowed into the league; a league that was previously based on segregation, let him in the doors. Robin Di’Angelo contends that how we write these kinds of stories often work in favour of white supremacy by erasing whiteness from the story:

Take, for example, Jackie Robinson. Robinson is often celebrated as “the first African American to break the color line and play in major league baseball.” While Robinson was certainly an amazing ball player, this story line depicts Robinson as racially special; a black man who finally had what it took to play with whites, as if no black athlete before him was qualified enough to compete with whites. Imagine if instead, the story went something like this: “Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major league baseball.”

This is a critical distinction because no matter how fantastic a player Robinson was, he simply could not play in the major leagues if whites – who control all of the institutions – did not allow it. Were he to walk onto the field prior to being granted permission by white owners and policy makers, the police would have removed him. (p. 149)

As Dr. Melissa Nobles, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at MIT, states in the film, during the 1950s-60s, “Blacks were beginning to demand equality of treatment and whites were unprepared to give it.” The fact that O’Ree made his NHL debut in 1958, four years after segregation was ruled unconstitutional by Brown v. Board of Education, is not a coincidence. O’Ree had the talent but he was also in the right place at the right time. Hockey allowed him in because broader society was…begrudgingly… allowing the (increased) fulfillment of Black citizenship. O’Ree admits that Herb Carnegie should have been in the NHL before him but he was never afforded that opportunity. In 1953, Don Barksdale was the first Black man to play in an NBA All-Star game, and Willie Thrower was the first Black quarterback in the NFL. In 1950, Althea Gibson became the first Black woman to play professional tennis and in 1956 she was the first Black player to win a Grand Slam. In 1961, Charlie Sifford was the first Black man to join the PGA. There were many firsts that came post Jackie Robinson through the 1970s because society was changing, but no one athlete “broke” anything. Instead, athletes were part of a societal shift. Anti-racism requires that we write the story accurately: O’Ree was an NHL calibre player. And, one team let him play. The next Black player to play in the NHL would be Mike Marson in 1974, fourteen years after O’Ree first suited up for Boston.

O’Ree’s family is largely absent from the narrative. His wife, Deljeet, makes a brief appearance at the end and his daughter, Chandra, appears via FaceTime when he finds about his HHOF induction. As someone who has been invested in South Asian hockey participation, I wanted to know more about Deljeet O’Ree! How did they meet? What did their families think of their inter-racial marriage? Did they have a traditional Punjabi wedding? Then O’Ree showed a picture from their wedding day and it looks like they had a rather civil ceremony. Still, Deljeet O’Ree is the kind of Hockey Wives story I’d like to see. Let’s hope there’s a Part II to the O’Ree story.

Currently, there are no screenings listed on the official website but keep an eye out for a screening in your area.

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