New Afro-Canadian TV series shooting in Calgary challenging narratives and industry norms
A new TV drama series being shot in Calgary is a Canadian first, according to its African producer and director.
The African Family is based around a young Afro-Canadian woman who sponsors her husband to come to Canada from Angola, but discovers the truth about their marriage.
It's almost exclusively an all-Black production both behind and in front of the camera, tapping local young talent from Calgary's African community.
"I've always believed we have a lot of good talent in Calgary," said Sylvester Ndumbi, the show's producer.
He said he believes anything is possible here and that Calgary's African talent rivals that of other big Canadian cities.
The cast includes actors originally from places like Nigeria, Congo and Angola.
"Over the summer I had the chance to meet up with local director Bukky Abaniwonda and the more we talked about it, the more I thought maybe it's time for Calgary to have the first of its kind African-Canadian production," Ndumbi said.
He said the show is about telling a different Canadian story while showcasing local acting talent.
"In the mainstream we don't get to see African culture, it's always a narrative that's well-established," Ndumbi said.
Ndumbi wants to disrupt that narrative.
'We can do it right here'
Ndumbi said as well as challenging narratives, the production also challenges the belief that filmmakers need to travel to Vancouver or Toronto to pull off a production like this.
"We saying, no, we can do it right here," he said. "There's always this stereotype of Calgary with the Stampede and cowboys, but there's another side where lots of Africans live here and they have lives going on, it's like a world of its own.
"People can see how Africans view the world."
The production has also been helping local businesses struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, using their businesses as shooting locations and investing in the community.
The production has invested $200,000 into Alberta's economy so far and has supported 50 jobs, according to Ndumbi.
Once the series is done, the team behind it needs to find it a home, which will involve pitching to TV networks. It could be on the air by next September.
The show's director Bukky Abaniwonda has worked in the industry for the past five years, both in front of and behind the camera. Abaniwonda has worked on short films, feature films and web series.
"It's so important to me because I'm originally from Nigeria and I travelled back there because of a lack of opportunity here and I didn't want to do that anymore, Canada is my home now," Abaniwonda said.
"I've been told to move to Toronto or Vancouver to establish your career, but I wanted to do something here. And it also opens up opportunities, helping other talents here."
In front of the camera is an all-Black cast, including lead actor Nikita Kalonji, who said the production is about realizing her dreams growing up.
"There are no words to describe it. My family always said you should be in film and the reaction I'm getting now is, 'This is where you belong,'" said Kalonji.
"I feel truly empowered and honoured to be part of making history."
Kalonji said opportunities for Black actors shouldn't be limited to Toronto and Vancouver.
"We need to start challenging that mentality," she said. "If you have the desire and the passion, then do it."
Kalonji said she also hopes to see more crossover in future, with local Black actors getting more roles in mainstream shows and recognized as actors.
She said she's looking forward to the show's premiere next fall.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.