Stepping into a West Indian restaurant in Toronto during a weekday lunch hour, Director X tells me, is the best way to sample the ethnic mishmash synonymous with the city's identity.
"You're gonna see white people, Indian people, black people, old people, cops, construction workers. It might as well be the lineup from McDonald's—it's completely diverse," he explains, perched in the lounge at Creative Soul, his downtown Toronto office.
"That's a big city thing… In other parts of the world, the only people you're going to see at West Indian restaurant are West Indians. There's racism [here] but it's not the same kind of racism."
The other "kind of racism"—palpable, tense, and sometimes violent—is what X, the director behind Drake's "Hotline Bling," one of the versions of Rihanna's "Work," and too many other influential music videos to list here, explores in his feature film debut Across the Line.
Set in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia—the real-life home of Sidney Crosby and a bunch of other white hockey stars—and based on true events, the story follows black teenager Mattie Slaughter (played by Toronto's Stephan James), a book smart hockey star who has NHL aspirations. Mattie comes from the primarily black community of North Preston and lives with his parents and his brother, who, with flashy cars paid for by pimping, serves as Mattie's foil.
Mattie's unlikely success, and a love triangle involving a classmate and her white boyfriend, become a source of tension in the highly segregated Cole Harbour High School (the white kids all live in a different part of town), eventually culminating in an all out brawl. In reality, racially-motivated riots amongst students at Cole Harbour District High forced the school to shut down in 1991. The violence has repeated itself over the years.
We sat down with X to discuss small-town racism and the challenges he faced making his first movie.
VICE: So Across the Line, based on true events, a story of racial tension on the east coast of Canada. How did this story come your way?
Director X: The producer and writer of the movie, Floyd Kane, actually went to Cole Harbour High when this happened. So it's something he's been living with for a long time and thinking about making this into a film.
The main character, Mattie, he's based on a real person?
He's based on Floyd, basically. But Floyd is a smart guy and his escape was his brain but we turned it into sports.
Sports is something where we can all understand very clearly what that means—if you get drafted. Getting into law school, it's not as dramatic and it doesn't provide the [same] type of tension. We needed something that said to the audience very clearly: "This will change things. I'm getting out." Hockey fit. And in its own way, hockey fits with this being a Canadian piece. We all understand that black folks out there are a new thing to them. We've all heard stories that small town hockey fans weren't exactly the most accepting of dark skin.
Do you think Toronto is kind of sheltered from the types of racism exist in smaller towns in Canada and particularly on the East Coast where it's predominantly white?
Completely. This is a black neighborhood at the end of a road, at the end of another road, that is very far away from the city. You're not going there unless you have to. And then the white community is a blue-collar community that's very far away from where North Preston is. So you have these very separate neighborhoods that have been feeding each other ideas about each other's communities and then you put these kids together in high school. And that's when everyone starts smashing into one another. But yeah, everywhere you go, any time you find a good bunch of racism, I guarantee you the people who are mad at the other people don't know the other people.
Did you personally relate to any of that?
To a degree. In high school, we got cliquey, the blacks kids were here, the white kids were there, the skinheads were there. So we see we are a tribal animal, so we congregate amongst people that think like us, look us, somehow connect with us. We feel, whether they look like us because we all dress the same or we racially are the same, somehow there's a connection, this is my tribe. So I've been around the tribalism of it. But no, I did not grow up in a world of proper segregation, 'We don't know one another.'
There was one quote about stereotypes in the movie: "Stereotypes are comfortable. You keep that balance and all is right in the world." What does that quote mean to you, or how does it speak to some of the issues we see in this movie or in society?
You've got Donald Trump whose power is coming from people's stereotypes that they feel comfortable with, they don't want it to change. If we all just stay in this nice comfortable position, I'll be happy. And they're fighting to conserve the conservatives, they're fighting to conserve the status quo. If you wanna get deep about it, it doesn't come from a healthy brain. The people that think that way, the region of their brain that deals in fear is overdeveloped, where the liberal mindset, is much more accepting and wants things to change.
You just mentioned Trump. Obviously, politicians who harness that fear can do a lot of damage. Were you hoping that people would take something away from this movie?
I don't know if I really have an 'Oh boy, I hope you leave the theater and think this way' agenda. My concern when I first got the script was actually making something even-handed. The third act of the film, how things all go down, I was looking to make something where you'd have to sit back and say "Hmm, that was wrong but that was also wrong." It doesn't tie up nice in a bow where white people are bad and black people are victims. You have to sit back and go "The black kids, that was outta line what they did, too." So it's dealing more in real life. That's what I liked about this film. The school itself explodes. The structure that we've been fed so long, that you would expect, wasn't there.
This being your first feature film, what were some of the challenges?
This was a lower budget movie so we had 15 days, we didn't have any overtime. So it's a matter of getting it shot and getting what you need. So it creates an urgency that you cannot fake and you can't force when everyone on the crew knows 'We're gonna be done in two minutes and we have to get three shots.'
Talk a little bit about the score and also just how your experience as a music video director impacted your approach to this.
I wanted something that would make you feel uneasy, I wanted something that would engage some primal instincts. Core functions, things that we share with the animals about protecting yourself, protecting other people, protecting your property, and what that does. So the music was meant to speak to that and we meant it. And that became a theme throughout the picture. It has a voice. I wanted the voice of the movie to be electronic, where characters, their music speaks to them, the friend plays his rock 'n' roll, the brother plays hip-hop, where the music of the film, when you hear that sound, when you heard these things going on, you knew the movie was talking to you.
How do you feel about the finished product?
I'm good man. We got some interesting stuff going on. It's interesting with story structure and playing with how we know an antagonist to be how we know a protagonist to me.
Was there anything you were trying to avoid?
The third act, I wanted it to be more grey where it just fucks everything up. No one walks away clean, no one gets to say "I was right."
Do you want to keep making movies?
Of course. I love telling stories, I like working with actors, it's a progression now into a different medium.
Across the Line is in theaters across Canada on April 15.
This interview was condensed for style and clarity. Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.