The films of Clement Virgo advance earlier conceptions and patterns of black filmmaking in Canada. Relegated to the documentary sector, black production was historically nurtured by state institutions, notably the NFB. Side-stepping this route, one that necessarily defines black Canadian experience from sociological redress of stereotyped imaging and social injustice, Virgo broke the feature film glass ceiling with Rude in 1995. He has since produced a number of dazzling features across a range of genres and funding contexts.
Virgo’s innovative approach to black Canadian themes emphasizes aesthetics as much as storytelling. Virgo self-consciously references popular culture, specifically elements of black expressive culture. Not simply mined for mere surface effect, the popular is integral to Virgo’s consistent themes of redemption and love, whether familial, romantic, platonic or transcendent. Utilizing style to the fullest, from music to the spoken word to everyday self-fashioning, Virgo forges a black urban public sphere that is both local and "outer-national," but decidedly Toronto’s.
Virgo honed his filmmaking skills as a resident at the Canadian Film Centre for Advanced Film Studies. There Virgo completed his short film Save My Lost Nigga Soul (1993), a contemporary, urbanized Cain and Abel tale, a theme that resurfaces in Rude (1995) and Love Come Down (2000). While a resident at the Canadian Film Centre, Virgo’s script was chosen for development under the newly formed The Feature Film Project, launching Rude as its first film and Virgo’s stellar debut feature.
Rude offers a triptych of three narratives, each with its distinct generic and stylistic features, interwoven with the voice of Rude, a pirate radio DJ. Representing diverse elements of black urban life, the three stories dramatize trials of gender, sexuality and inequity as the characters move from crisis to hope. The more conventionally rendered "hood" narrative of moral struggle over drugs and family eventually subsumes the luscious, art cinema–driven tales of a window dresser and gay amateur boxer.
Adapted from a novel by Virginia Hamilton, Virgo’s second feature, The Planet of Junior Brown (1998) was co-written with critic Cameron Bailey. The 1970s Harlem locale is transferred to Toronto, emphasizing the city’s multicultural fabric, yet the novel’s friendship between an obese and bewildered piano prodigy and his homeless friend remain central to the script. Virgo's visually stylistic acuity, coupled with the pumped up eccentricities of its characters envisage a whimsical yet locally resonant work. Uncharacteristically episodic and mischievous for a Christmas special (it was first shown on CBC television), fantasy frames the themes of street life and familial dysfunction, shunning sentiment and standard realist depiction.
With Love Come Down, Virgo extends the Cain and Abel theme with two brothers, one visibly white, the other black, sharing a mutual father. They pursue their respective careers as comedian and boxer, and their respective love objects; however, resisting past family demons emerges as the real struggle. Less art film driven and more organically linear than Virgo’s previous films, the back and forth movement from childhood to the present is seamless despite the time shifts, a fluidity matched in the deft transitions across communities. With Love Come Down, which won three Genies, Virgo widens his conceptual palette, a testament to his growing sensibilities and talent.
|Film and video work includes
A Small Dick Fleshy Ass Thang, 1991 (co-director with Virginia Rankin; writer)
Split Second Pullout Technique, 1992 (director; writer)
Save My Lost Nigga’ Soul, 1993 (director; writer)Rude
, 1994 (director; writer; co-producer with Karen King, Damon D’Oliveira)
Side Effects series, 1994 (director; TV)
The Planet of Junior Brown, 1998 (director; co-writer with Cameron Bailey; TV)
One Heart Broken into Song, 1999 (director)Love Come Down
, 2000 (director; writer; co-producer with Eric Jordan, Damon D’Oliveira
Soul Food series, 2000 (director; TV)
The Wire series, 2001 (director; TV)
Surrender Dorothy, 2002 (director; writer)Lie With Me, 2005 (director; co-writer with Tamara Faith Berger; producer)
Note: Updated to April 2005.