Shoot The Messenger’s Creative Duo Fights to bring diversity to Canadian TV

Rohan Laylor/phat dog visuals
Rohan Laylor/phat dog visuals

While the United States is finally coming off what some were calling the most diverse Emmys yet, Canadian television still has plenty of room for improvement according to the creative minds behind CBC’s upcoming drama Shoot the Messenger. “We have a poor record with diversity in Canada,” STM co-creator and executive producer Jennifer Holness tells The TV Junkies. Holness created the upcoming crime drama, which premieres Monday, October 10 at 9 p.m. on CBC, with her husband and creative partner Sudz Sutherland. The series follows a young crime reporter as she tracks a story about a gang-related murder and discovers a web of political and sexual indiscretions.

“I have been working in the industry over 15 years and this is our first drama series. We’ve been trying for a long, long time,” Holness says. Through their other work on projects such as the award-winning feature film Home Again starring Tatyana Ali, Lyriq Bent and CCH Pounder, Holness and Sutherland say they have always put a priority on diversity. “When we make a production we often bring forth a diverse cast and suddenly those actors start working a lot because people often say things like ‘Hey, where do they come from? I’ve never seen them before,’” says Holness. She also attributes it to the fact that the Canadian TV landscape “is in fact not very diverse,” both in front of and behind the camera and that “it’s been a very big struggle” throughout her and Sutherland’s career.

“I’ll be honest with you,” says Sutherland, “trying to get into this business as a 6 foot tall black man was very hard. It was very hard. It was like a wall. It was like a monolith.” While he is a freelance TV writer and director with credits from Haven, Reign and Beauty and the Beast to Canadian series like Cracked, Murdoch Mysteries, Heartland and Wild Roses, Sutherland says starting out he struggled to get into both the Directors’ and Writers’ Guilds of Canada. In fact, he says “only by doing independent productions outside of the industry did I get noticed by Disney and that’s who gave me my first directing job.”

“Applying for jobs over and over and being told ‘I don’t think you’re going to fit in here. I don’t think my boss would be comfortable with you here.’ That’s what I was told on more than one occasion,” Sutherland recalls. It’s experiences like that and mindsets like that that made doing a one hour drama series for CBC a goal that took the pair a while to achieve. “It’s been a long way and a process where we had to fight and scrape to get a chance and opportunity,” says Sutherland.

Thankfully things are starting to change and conversations about diversity are helping. “I actually think the American side of things have helped to influence us so we’re in a good time period where the conversation is happening,” says Holness. “It almost looks like we hit a part of the zeitgeist,” she says, but that feeling is nothing new for this creative team. “We’ve been doing this forever and I have to tell you, the God’s honest truth is that it’s been a struggle and not as welcoming as one would think,” Holness laments.

With Shoot the Messenger the duo focus their story in Toronto and touch on many of the city’s diverse neighborhoods and cultures. “This is how we’ve done everything in the past. It’s how we saw the world and the truth is it’s actually more difficult to sell this kind of thing, maybe until recently,” says Holness. She says she’s not sure why more series don’t reflect reality. Holness tells us that she “can’t understand why when I turn on the television I don’t see the Toronto that I grew up in. It makes no sense.”

By showing the “real” Toronto “we’re not trying to make things funky,” Holness says, but “we’re actually just trying to say this is what the world looks like around us and we should see it like that.” For Holness, diversity boils down to a conscious decision. “You have to ask yourself, if your world is diverse and what you create on television is not, then don’t tell me there’s not a specific agenda in this at some point,” she says. “I do think people can operate in a certain space and not think about it,” Holness continues to explain, “but as diversity becomes such a big part of your reality, by not actually embracing it, then you’re making a choice.”

 

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Shoot the Messenger premieres Monday, October 10 at 9 p.m. on CBC.

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