Laurence Mathieu-Leger and Bryant McBride's critically acclaimed documentary Willie is now airing on ESPN in celebration of Black History Month. It's the incredible story of trailblazer and Hockey Hall of Famer Willie O'Ree.
Mathieu-Leger's first feature length documentary about the NHL's first black player has already won several awards during its festival run, including the Hot Docs Film Festival's Top 5 Audience Favorite and the Downtown LA Film Festival's Best Sports Documentary.
Laurence Mathieu-Leger is no stronger to success. Born in Montreal, she came to the U.S. more than a decade ago for an internship with CNN and Anderson Cooper. The results since have been spectacular. In 20017 she received international recognition after winning a World Press Photo award for her groundbreaking work on the Guardian Interactive production The Injustice System. A year later she won a prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award in the continuing coverage category for her work on Keystone XL: driving the US Pipeline Route.
Willie director/co-producer Mathieu-Leger says her former Harlem neighbor Bryant McBride (co-producer) made her aware of O'Ree and the possibility that he could enter the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
"Bryant was the first black executive to work at the National Hockey League and being Canadian I just thought that was brilliant but we had never really spoken about hockey other than that. One evening I kind of ran into him sitting on the stoop of his brownstone. Bryant lives full-time in Boston and is kind of in New York part-time. So I started to chat with him and he started telling me about Willie O'Ree and that there was an effort to get him into the Hockey Hall of Fame. My first thought was that I was surprised to learn that the first black hockey player was not in the Hockey Hall of Fame first of all. Second of all, I was surprised that I didn't actually know who Willie O'Ree was. I never played hockey but I grew up in Montreal and I watched the Canadiens all my life and you know we have a huge hockey culture up there and I didn't know who Willie O'Ree was. I thought probably I wasn't alone. In that moment I told Bryant we had something about this immediately."
Willie not only chronicles O'Ree's playing years and eventually the long-awaited call to the Hall of Fame, but the film digs deeper into the pioneer's ancestry.
"I was interested in Willie's narrative that his family had come to Canada through the Underground Railroad which is pretty hard to prove and document because historically escaped slaves who were leaving the United States and coming to Canada secretly through the Underground Railroad were normally erasing their tracks. The reason for that was because they didn't want to be hunted by bounties and therefore there is very little history written about this. So I decided to do a sort of ancestry.com of Willie."
Eventually Mathieu-Leger's research led her to Paris O'Ree.
"He had been sort of a black loyalist that had arrived in New Brunswick around the late 1700's. I discored that Paris O'Ree's name was in the Carleton "Book of Negroes", which is a historical document that was written by the English after the Revolutionary War listing all the slaves that had fought with the English in exchange for freedom. This book basically listed all the freed slaves that were embarked on boats to sort of send them to a free life in a northern parts, mostly Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In discovering that I thought it was extraordinary and I had to confirm that this name was indeed there. Washington (D.C.) also has a version of that because the Americans kept their own version to make sure if they ever wanted to retrieve their slaves they also had a document. In these documents I found out that the O'Ree family was from South Carolina."
Near the end of the film Willie O'Ree is brought to tears when he goes to South Carolina and sees documentation of Paris and his family's history. It's one of many emotional moments in Willie. Several of O'Ree's white life-long friends from Fredericton, New Brunswick appear in the documentary and helped push for Willie being selected in the "Builder" category of the Hall of Fame. The O'Ree family was one of two black families in the neighborhood.
"The film is about hockey, but not really about hockey. I think I wanted to use the thread of hockey to talk about other topics, obviously the importance of diversity, the power of community, the power of friendship and also shed light on Willie's amazing story that was really not just about being the first black hockey player in the National Hockey League. For those of you who know Willie was blind in one eye (struck by a puck during a hockey game) and he was also totally forgotten by the hockey world. After playing hockey he sort of flipped burgers and sold cars so I was interested in telling more than just a traditional straight sports story with sit-down interviews, archival footage and rock music."
O'Ree describes in the documentary about his Major League Baseball tryout in "The South" and what a different world it was compared to his hometown Fredericton in Canada. O'Ree was being scouted by the Milwaukee Braves in the 1950's. During his brief journey to a training camp in Georgia, he saw American racial segregation up close for the first time.
Laurence Mathieu-Leger's five year old son plays hockey in New York. Does her son ask questions about Willie O'Ree and understand his story?
"He really does because we live in the South Bronx and we're white. We have a diverse background but "White" ethnically-speaking so my son is actually a minority in his class and so he's very well aware of the importance of diversity. In the school he's at three's a lot of celebration of black heroes. He understands the importance to spread the message about these heroes. He actually came home the other day and said that we need to do something about Willie O'Ree for Black History Month. I think that's the way we changed things, especially as White people we want to be open about conversations about diversity and importance of standing up for each other and celebrating Black Heroes not just in February but everyday of the year."
Willie explored O'Ree impact on not only young men but also women interested in playing hockey. Mathieu-Leger says she's proud of that aspect of the film too.
"Being a woman who played sports growing up often times when you talk about an athlete who was a hero you very rarely hear the female perspective. In a sport like hockey hearing black women talk about the game never happens even though Angela James was the first black woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (2010). (Angela James is a Canadian former ice hockey player who played at the highest levels of senior hockey between 1980 and 2000). For me in talking to these young people it was really important to connect Willie's story to the now and also provide a platform to talk about how we don't live in a post-racial society and not just post-racial but post-gender society. There's a lot of work to be done. It's all about hearing those stories that we can become allies. That's also why Willie's friends are important in the story."
During this edition of SportsJam, Laurence Mathieu-Leger also talks about her new project, a film titled Time Saved. That film based in Cincinnati, Ohio tells the story of two young women fighting a dysfunctional justice system and the importance of second chances.
While Mathieu-Leger is driven to tell social justice stories, she still finds plenty of time for her husband Parnell Adam and her young children. Adam, a teacher in New York City, and Mathieu-Leger were both top athletes who had promising sports careers cut short by injuries. Mathieu-Leger says her husband regulary goes out on the ice to play hockey with their five year old son.
Click above to hear the entire SportsJam with Doug Doyle featuring Laurence Mathieu-Leger.