Q&A: Soul on Ice filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason
The film Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future (NHL Network, 8 p.m. ET on Wed. Feb. 24; Sun. Feb 28 at 7 p.m. ET) explores the impact that black hockey players have had on the game and society through the years. Its maker, Damon Kwame Mason (right in photo above with Joel Ward of the San Jose Sharks), was born and raised in Toronto, where he developed a love for the sport. He has worked in the entertainment field since 1996, serving as a radio personality before turning his efforts to film. With Soul on Ice now airing on television, Mason hopes to make the movie available on iTunes and Netflix in order to reach a global market. He also wants to travel across the United States to screen the film in major hockey markets.
SI.com recently had a chance to interview Mason and learn more behind the making of his film.
Beth Maiman: What is your story and the story behind what inspired you to make the film?
Damon Kwame Mason: The story of Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future is basically about the history and contributions of black athletes in hockey. We go all the way from the earliest accounts, which was in the late 1800s in the colored hockey league in Nova Scotia and we take that all the way to the present date with the young players that are playing now. What really inspired me to do this was that I was a radio announcer for 13 years in Edmonton. I used to go to a lot of games there. I just loved the athleticism and the skill and the game. Hockey is one of those games when you see it live, it’s a lot different than just watching on TV.
One of the questions came to my head: “How come there are still not a lot of black athletes playing the game?” At the same time, I was noticing a lot of the young guys coming up, like PK Subban, Wayne Simmonds and Joel Ward. There were a couple guys out there that were coming up that I didn’t see as much as a kid. I thought, “Wow this is pretty inspiring.” So I did some research and found out about the colored league. That’s what inspired me to do this. And as a black Canadian I thought I should know this history. Hockey is our national game. I did some research and thought maybe one day I could do something with it, but then fast forward to 2012 and I said I am going to go for it and do it.
BM: Have you made films before?
DKM: No, this is my first film.
BM: Wow, really? That’s impressive, most people have a little something on YouTube, this is the real deal.
DKM: It’s funny you say that because when we had our screening at the Edmonton film festival I had a lot of friends there to watch and I think they had the same thought: I was going to do this little YouTube type of video. And then when they saw the film, they were pleasantly surprised and that was kind of cool.
BM: The film follows Jaden Lindo (current Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, above) and his journey to try to make it to the NHL. What was the idea behind him being the star of the film? Did that just fall into your lap or did you know of him before you started making the film?
DKM: That’s my Denzel Washington. He did basically fall into my lap, though. I met his father at a hockey rink and we exchanged numbers. He was giving me some contacts for a couple of Jaden’s coach. I didn’t really have an intention to work with Jaden with I first met his dad, but then when I was in the second year of my film I thought I had all these interviews but I need a true story. Jaden’s draft year was coming up, so I really wanted to show the beginning to the end of his draft days and I wanted to show a strong family, a strong black family. That is one thing we don’t see a lot in television.
I wanted to show a mother and father raising a kid who wants to play hockey. I know you have never seen that in the history of film—black mother, father, child, playing hockey. So I purposely did that. I went to his house and met with his dad. I had a great vibe about Jaden. He seemed like a great kid and that is what I wanted to show. So we formed a relationship. He was shy in the beginning but by the end we became good friends. I consider him my little brother now and today I’m about to go watch him play up the street. It was a blessing in disguise, it all worked out.
BM: You incorporated the families of current and past players in the film. What was the decision behind that?
DKM: If we are going to introduce the game of hockey to minorities and open that up, they have to understand the fundamentals of the game. Hockey is not like basketball where you just send your kid out on the street. Hockey is a game where you have strong family support from the beginning. I wanted people to walk away with the subconscious [thought] “Oh, in hockey it’s important to support the children.” So if they were deciding one day to put their kids into hockey, that’s one of the things kids will have to have, a strong support system that is a family. Family is everything and I wanted to be able to show that in the film. I thought people would appreciate that more because they could see all the dedication that comes not just from the athletes, but the families.
BM: You talked to a lot of players in this film, both past and present. They all seemed to talk very openly. Was there one player’s comments that stood out to you the most?
DKM: I think listening to (former Capitals and Kings forward) Mike Marson and Val James (ex-Sabres, Maple Leafs forward) speak about some of the things they had to go through. James going out there to play and having to be in an arena with people holding watermelons and yelling racial slurs at him. And Marson talking about the death threats that he would get. It’s interesting to me because hockey is a game where you have to be really focused. So imagine if you are preparing for a game and you have in the back of your mind that there could be a person in the audience that has a gun and wants to shoot you and all you want to do is play hockey.
All the stories like that, they were all really inspiring in the sense that they were just guys who wanted to play hockey and they never allowed any difficulties or any adversity stop them from doing what they dreamed about since they were children. I thought that was a really great message. Those stories made me inspired to complete the film because I wanted people to know what these guys went through and how they capitalized on their strength to continue to play.
BM: I was curious about the music in the film. Were those original songs?
DKM: One song was original, the Soul on Ice song by Saukrates. The other is by artists that I know. They are all Canadian, Toronto-based artists. It was a conscious choice to have a very urban, hip-hop base feel to have over footage of hockey. Because again that is something you don’t see often. I wanted to change that. I know some hockey fans who have seen the film and think, “You know, something was weird about it, and I think it was the music.” It’s like if you were to watch basketball highlights and they used heavy metal. I always thought hockey was one sport that fit so well with hip-hop music with the speed and skills of the sport. No one has really done it so I am just happy to be the first person to jump on board with that.
BM: You traveled a lot of places for this film. It looked like you interviewed Willie O’Ree (photo above) in his sunny San Diego home. How long did the film take and how many places did you visit?
DKM: It took about three and half years to complete the film. I traveled to Nova Scotia, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, North Carolina, Los Angeles, San Diego and obviously Edmonton. Luckily, a lot of the people I interviewed lived in Toronto so I was able to get them.
BM: Was it hard at times to do all that traveling?
DKM: No, I love traveling. The toughest part was the financial strain. I sold my home in Edmonton to do most of the film. Sometimes it was difficult to get in touch with certain players and just getting people to trust me. It being my first film, people didn’t know who I was or my intentions ... but I think if you persevere and be persistent, people will come on board.
BM: The part of the film that had me thinking the most was when you asked current and former players when we will see an all-black line in the NHL. I thought it was really interesting how many of the answers varied. Some were more hopeful than others. So, what is your answer to that question?
DKM: I give it about 10 years to be honest. I always tell people you will see the game change in about 15 to 20 years. But an all-black line, I think Anson Carter said it best when he said “They will have to be very skilled because all eyes are going to be on them.” I think the media will make a big deal about it. They are going to have to be that good and be able to handle that pressure. As much as it will be celebrated, people will want to tear that down as well.
You can check out more about the film here.