As a black Canadian, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I knew very little about Harry Jerome going into Charles Officer’s documentary, Mighty Jerome. While I was aware of the annual Harry Jerome awards in Toronto, which recognizes positive achievements made by members of the black community, I did not know much about Jerome’s track and field days. Sadly my Canadian track and field knowledge only goes as far back as the Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis rivalry which was a major part of the era in which I grew up in.
Mighty Jerome documents the rise of Harry Jerome in one of the most turbulent times in North American history. In 1960, at the age of 19, Harry Jerome set a world record by running the 100-metre sprint in ten seconds! Thrust into the media spotlight, Jerome must navigate through the highs and lows of becoming an overnight public sensation. Over the course of his career Jerome had to overcome bigotry, the struggle to maintain a marriage in the public eye, and several injuries. One injury in particular not only threatened to paralyze Jerome forever, but was ultimately the catalyst for the one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
What immediately struck me about Mighty Jerome is how little things have changed in the world of sports since Jerome’s era. One of Jerome’s close friends featured in the film remarks that the media wants to humble black athletes. This instantly made me think of what Montreal Canadiens’ defensemen P.K. Subban, who is briefly shown at the end of the film, had to endure in the NHL this year. Although a young budding star for the Canadiens, all the media attention this year was focused on how he celebrates too much after scoring a goal, how he mouths off too much to other players, etc. Yet as anyone who closely follows the NHL, myself included, can attest, Subban is not doing anything other than what most white athletes in the league are doing. Yet he is chastised while other are praised for doing the same thing. This is no different to the battles that Jerome had with the media. Reporters praised him when he did well but were also quick to tear him down and call his character in question whenever he succumbed to injuries.
While Mighty Jerome does not shy away from Jerome’s bout with the media, the film does not let it consume the entire film. Officer is more concerned on pointing out all the reasons why individuals should really take the time to learn more about Jerome and his achievements. The film highlights how Jerome had to endure prejudice all of his life, similar to how his folks, an interracial couple, did when they first moved to British Columbia. In one thought provoking moment, the film looks at how racism and the civil rights movement were viewed differently in Canada than it was in the United States. Canadians thought that it was horrible that African-Americans were not being treated like equals, yet Canadians somehow glossed over the fact that they were conducting the same racist practices here. Jerome was frequently put in a tight spot in which many were looking for him to publicly take a side in regards to the civil rights movement. In one piece of archive footage, Jerome is shown on a local television show lamenting that it is easy for whites to talk about standing up for the cause as their livelihood is not at stake. Jerome had to always be mindful of what he said in public.
The Mighty Jerome is one of those films that I can see becoming a staple of many schools Black History Month programs. It is a film that will not only sheds light on a man that the younger generation knows little about, but it does so in a way that keeps the viewers interest until the very end. Charles Officer incorporates a beautiful monochrome palate that really makes the film come alive stylistically. Coupled with a jazzy soundtrack and a blend of archive footage, modern day interviews, and re-enacted moments, Mighty Jerome should appeal to a wide audience. Mighty Jerome is a fitting tribute to a man who travelled a tough road to make things a little smoother for the rest of us.