In 2002, Toronto-born filmmaker, Charles Officer, was asked to be someone’s date to the Harry Jerome Awards, an annual event that honours excellence among the African-Canadian population. Although he knew the name going in – the late Jerome famously ran track for Canada – he did not know the incredible history that shaped Jerome’s legacy. He was inspired at the time but he had no idea just how great an impact Jerome would have on his life, let alone that he would become the subject of his second feature film, entitled Mighty Jerome.
Five years later, Officer would come face to face with the track star once again, when the National Film Board approached him to potentially direct a feature documentary about Jerome’s life. At that time, Officer had only directed a handful of shorts and had yet to focus his passion on filmmaking, coming from a background that included graphic design, architecture, acting and even professional hockey. He had not even begun shooting his first feature, Nurse.Fighter.Boy, which would go on to earn the writer/director 10 Genie nominations after a successful festival run. Suffice it to say, he was a bit taken aback by the NFB’s interest. Not one to cower though, Officer attacked the opportunity with the same fervor Jerome might have attacked a race.
“I had heard about this man before but I only knew that he was a fast runner, not what he actually accomplished,” Officer tells me when we meet just days before Mighty Jerome bows at the prestigious Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. “I was nervous as hell but I just came at it from that naïve place. I was so nervous that I over prepared.”
Officer’s preparation would ultimately win him the job over a handful of other directors. Having never made a documentary though, he would now have to figure out just what that entailed. “I wanted to push the experience,” he says, with clear sincerity in his tone. “There are formulas that work but it really comes down to the story and how you’re going to interpret that cinematically.” Officer chose to do so in delectable black and white, breaking up his time between touching and engaging testimonials, extensive archival footage and striking recreations.
To become more intimately familiar with Jerome’s life, Officer began by interviewing the people who knew him best, from the coach that brought him back from the brink of oblivion, Bill Bowerman, to his surprisingly supportive ex-wife, Wendy Jerome. “This guy affected his friends in a deep way,” says Officer, clearly also impacted by their vast admiration. “Sometimes, before interviews even started, people would break down.”
While the interviews would shape Officer’s treatment for the film, it didn’t hurt that the story he was telling was so naturally compelling to begin with. Jerome broke out onto the international track scene in 1960 when he tied the 100-meter dash world record at the time. He instantly became a national hero and Canada’s greatest hope for a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. When he failed to place there due to an injury, the backlash from the Canadian press was not only unduly harsh but it also exposed a Canadian attitude towards race that had prior to this been neatly hidden beneath a polite surface.
“What Harry experienced was paramount to how we saw Canadian politics with the civil rights movement at that time,” Officer states. “We don’t hear about certain elements of that struggle [in Canada] and we also don’t hear about how we’ve grown.”
Out of his hardships, Jerome would also grow to earn an underdog status on the world track circuit and we all know how much people love comeback stories. “It’s such a Hollywood story, dying so young, achieving all he did and the racism,” Officer gushes. “I was like, why hasn’t this already been made? Why haven’t I seen this already?”
One could argue that Jerome’s story was just waiting for the right person to tell it. Mighty Jerome is after all a fine piece of cinema. The uncannily natural arc to Jerome’s life might have made the structure of the film a little easier to piece together but it is Officer’s calculated and concerted effort to tell that story with distinction and respect that ensures it crosses that finish line triumphantly. And now that the race is over, “I am so hungry to dive in creatively now,” Officer exclaims, eyes beaming. “I just want to get to my next film.”
Just like an athlete, always thinking about the next race.
Mighty Jerome screens at Hot Docs on Friday, April 29, 9:30 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox, Saturday, April 30, 11:20 AM @ the Isabel Bader Theatre and Sunday, May 8, 4:30 PM at The Revue cinema. For more information, please visit Hot Docs online.
The film then makes it's way to the 27th Vue d'Afriques festival in Montreal before a Canadian theatrical run. For more information on the film, please visit NFB online.
This story originally appeared in Hour Community.