HOTDOCS19 REVIEW: Willie [2019]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 89 minutes | Release Date: 2019 (Canada)
Director(s): Laurence Mathieu-Leger

“I’m not done”

It was 2003 before a Black hockey player had the honor of being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. That player was Grant Fuhr, the Stanley Cup winning goalie of the Edmonton Oilers and multiple other teams (including a short stint with my hometown Buffalo Sabres). Because he was far from the first Black player in the league, however, you wouldn’t be faulted for wondering why the man with that unique distinction hadn’t already been enshrined. The reason was simple: Willie O’Ree only played forty-five games with the Boston Bruins. For a league that has consistently rewarded production above most everything else, that sample size never would have popped out to the voting boards. Where Jackie Robinson is a household name beyond baseball, O’Ree was almost forgotten.

So it’s only fitting that Laurence Mathieu-Leger‘s documentary Willie would surround O’Ree’s long-overdue bid for induction in 2018 as much as who he was as a player and remains as an ambassador for the game. She talks with a few people who admit they just assumed he was already a member because of his breaking the racial barrier in 1958. Some of them are the long-time friends who decided to work to ensure that glaring oversight didn’t continue. So they researched what was necessary to qualify for nomination—the “builder” category was created in 2009 to honor coaches, executives, media, and others who’ve assisted in “building” the game—and submitted his name. They must wait until November to discover whether the fruits of that labor succeeded.

Mathieu-Leger therefore begins her film in March by traveling to Fredericton, New Brunswick to talk to Willie’s childhood friends and visit the neighborhood where he grew up. From there we get archival footage of his playing days (he was a professional player for twenty-one years, leading the Western Hockey League in scoring twice along the way); the hunt in South Carolina for information on his ancestor Paris (an escaped slave); and examples of his work as the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and a key leader of the league’s NHL diversity program. There are interviews with those he’s inspired (Sydney Kinder, Devante Smith-Pelly, Kelsey Koelzer, and Wayne Simmonds), those who’ve supported him, and the man himself. His off-ice credentials ultimately overshadow even those he earned on the ice.

As such, O’Ree’s story goes well beyond hockey. Fans are definitely the target audience for this film, but it says a lot about battling adversity as well. With anecdotes about visiting the American South for a baseball tryout and numerous accounts of racially motivated abuse (with threats of attacks by white supremacist organizations included), Willie’s journey is about perseverance and acknowledging just how much more work a POC must perform to both have the chance to earn a job and also keep it. Add the fact that he accomplished his goals with the closely guarded secret that he was blind in one eye only makes his story more impressive and emboldening. Bryant McBride literally found him working hotel security before bringing him back into the NHL fold.

Many surely already know the result of whether O’Ree got his call in November of 2018 so it’s good that there’s this second level of interest. That journey is compelling in and of itself, but the stuff surrounding his ascent in the sport and the work he performs now to ensure future generations see that road as one they may follow is more so. The wealth disparity of the sport is therefore touched upon as far as what neighborhoods and demographics have access to facilities and equipment. Bridging this gap has become his life’s mission despite not starting that chapter until age sixty. Watching him reminisce at eighty-two is thus nothing short of miraculous when you think of concussions and other hockey-related injuries taking former players too young.

That he remains humble with a smile only endears him further to hopefully be placed on equal footing as Jackie Robinson rather than relegated one step below as “the Jackie Robinson of hockey.” Mathieu-Leger’s film is straightforward enough to provide the details as to why he’s always been the latter, but personal enough to warrant the former. Rather than get lost in someone else’s shadow, O’Ree should be known as the one casting it for countless hockey players and fans alike. Willie proves a feel good story as a result with a healthy dose of historical documentation to collect his legacy in a single place. And it taking this long for him to grace the big screen is almost as surprising as his absence in the Hall.

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