This Is North Preston: A Community Response
My intention was to write review of the documentary film This Is North Preston, but when I learned that there were residents of North Preston who were protesting the Halifax showings of the film, I decided to expand my research scope. As a former journalist I felt it was imperative to thoroughly explore the community media landscape in order to gain a clear understanding of the critical issues and perspectives.
As a consultant, I often conduct media analyses to identify important messages while also examining how messages are framed and perceived. My analysis of This Is North Preston began in the second week of May 2019, after I received an invitation to review the film from a public relations company based in Toronto. Since then I have interviewed many individuals looking to share their reaction to This Is North Preston and I have kept abreast of online film reviews, and followed conversations on news and social media platforms.
I have taken my time to explore and to have as many conversations as I could, without the worry of making a deadline or to be timely to the current hot topic. It was important to me to get behind the emotional tug-of-war that is happening with many North Preston residents and the Nova Scotian community-at-large. Many people are, on one hand, weary of the film’s criminal subject matter, but on the other, grateful to have a more visible platform to dispel negative stigmas about their community.
After watching the trailer, I was interested in how a 71 minute film entitled “This Is North Preston” could accurately convey the complexity of Nova Scotia’s and Canada’s tense relationship with African Nova Scotian and Indigenous groups, specifically as it relates to racism and land entitlement. Director Jaren Hayman validated these concerns when he tweeted his regret on his decision to go with that title in a Twitter thread with mental health activist Tyler Simmonds.
Like many people, after watching the film I was left with mixed feelings. I thoroughly appreciated the gorgeous aerial shots and the gospel soundtrack provided by the Wallace Smith family and the Nova Scotia Mass Choir. There were touching moments in the film that deserve accolades, such as the reunion between the main subject, Justin “Just Chase” Smith, and his ailing grandmother. I understand that there are many people who would now have a chance to see the beauty of North Preston for the first time because of the film.
The film also left me with many unanswered questions, the loudest of which was: who’s version of North Preston was it attempting to share? At times we saw North Preston through an outsider’s lens, other times it felt like viewers were accompanying the main subject, Justin “Just Chase” Smith on a stroll down a fantastical memory lane. Some viewers may have identified more with the coming of age story of Corvell Beals, or become enamoured with his father, the unofficial mayor of the community, Puddie Provo. Others may have rallied behind the efforts of community leader Miranda Cain or felt outraged by the racist experiences inflicted upon beloved boxer Kirk Johnson. Others may have been uplifted by powerful song and sermon, as I was, through the powerfully evocative glimpses of the community’s resilience.
One thing is certain, there are many versions of North Preston that I did not feel comfortable seeing or learning more about. I can also say without a doubt that there are many residents who vehemently disagree that the film was in any way, shape or form, representative of the place that they lovingly call Up Home.
I feel for Jaren Hayman and truly respect his efforts in taking on the daunting task of contextualizing the longstanding conflict that has tainted North Preston soil for many generations. To attempt to capture the spirit of the community that persists despite of that conflict is a cinematic and social challenge that even the most experienced filmmakers might shy away from - and to be introduced to North Preston through the eyes of an aspiring R&B artist looking to advance on the music charts? Perhaps this is where inexperience may have been more of a benefit than an impediment.
Thankfully This Is North Preston is not the only reference that we have in our toolbox to help uncover the complex layers of North Preston. There have been many who have come before Hayman to assist in narrating this tale including journalists, historians, educators, advocacy groups, politicians, creatives, and the most powerful storytellers of them all, the residents of North Preston. I hope to share links to many of these works throughout this media project. I will continue to update this page with stories and responses as information is compiled. I am just one person, working on my own dime, and there is a lot to share, so please have patience with me. This is a work in progress.
The response that I have received in conducting this independent media analysis from the community and across the globe in the form of calls, emails, and conversations was overwhelming. There are hundreds of posts and messages to sort through, and many sensitive conversations to navigate and transcribe. It also feels wonderful to deal with a problem of too many people caring and sharing. For me, this is overwhelmingly positive.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed their time and insights. We all have an important part to play in capturing and sharing the stories of community, and to rewrite the heritage myths and stigmas that have misrepresented many cultures throughout Canada’s history. This Is North Preston is an example of how a community can use their voices as weapons in the fight on misinformation - to tell their own stories, using their own voices and pass on their own history to future generations.
Jaren Hayman and Justin Smith shared their versions of North Preston, but there are many other stories and voices to be shared, a few of which you will find below: