Previously held in celebrated esteem as an indie filmmaker of fiction, Mina Shum (Double Happiness) makes a fearless ascent into non-fiction with the tender and deep-toned Ninth Floor.
Shum’s sentient gaze makes for tout de suite intelligence as she smoothly sweeps up the viewer from the outset, revisiting a scandalous episode of institutionalized racism, the Sir George Williams Affair — a 14-day student occupation at a Montreal campus that degenerated into a police-instigated riot — a grievous milestone for race relations in Canada.
Shum does a discerning job of opening Ninth Floor with sentimental stock footage of Expo ’67 to settle the babe-in-the-woods-style chastity that Canada cast on the world stage, showing a nation culturally diverse and forward-looking, a stark contrast to what the truth would be for numerous Caribbean students in Montreal about to be set apart and held down.
The zeitgeist of sufferance and diversity was a literal whitewash as far as they’re concerned and the ensuing contrecoup, nothing short of agonizing oppression. “Canadians are racist, but they like to apologize for being racist,” says Bukka Rennie, one of the student protestors, through stifled laughter that moves from self-aggrandizing to self-defensive. It’s the first of many inexplicable, honest, and purgative moments in a film that frequently moves from maddening to moving in the bat of a lash.
For the black students at Sir George Williams, specifically those in biology professor Perry Anderson’s class, erroneously lower grades, guarded demeanor and edification from Anderson were clear indicators of academic exclusion.
Shum details, via newsreel footage, present-day interviews with most of the subjects — Anderson himself declined to be interviewed, but his son does no such thing, painting a surprisingly reprehensible and hypercritical portrait of the man — along with artful and arresting tableau of the campus and environs, making for an engaging, enraging, in-depth, and often abashing documentary.
Well beyond any of the run-of-the-mill talking head dormancy that often befalls such a nebulous-like narrative, Ninth Floor moves with momentum and manners, eliciting emotional responses without warning as her angry inquiry seeks to appropriate what was a massive malpractice.
As the students of Anderson’s class, in the late 1960s nabe of the counterculture, the civil rights movement, and frequent student protests, escalate proceedings in the wake of a maddeningly indifferent university administration that essentially just sits on its hands, a sit-in/standoff arises on the titular ninth floor of the campus’ computer department that would rot and retrograde over days into police-led infiltration and provocation, vandalism, life-threatening arson, rioting and arrests numbering close to a hundred.
Shum is a subversive and engaging filmmaker, and her recital of civil disobedience, while set over 40 years ago, feels relevant as ever given today’s black lives matter à la mode. Ninth Floor is an eloquent storm, occasionally striking tearfully without warning, and moving, by its end, into a cleansing, windless calm.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)