7 wanted to be strong, smart, goodlooking, cool, tough'
The irony of being an acclaimed Canadian director was beginning to sink in. Clement Virgo, 29, has just returned from Europe, where various film festivals invited him to show his highly praised first feature, Rude. For the first time in his life, Virgo was treated to business class. He enjoyed the luxurious pampering, the free drinks, the hot face cloths, but found it all a bit disconcerting. “They serve you constantly,” he says, “and you realize there are people who live like this all the time." Now, Virgo is back home, eating breakfast at a diner near his small downtown apartment, where he lives alone, and wondering why, for someone so honored, he has no money. Yes, he concedes, the olive wool jacket he is wearing is an Armani, “but I ate tuna for a long time to pay for it.” As for Rude, despite eight Genie nominations, it has failed to break Canadian cinema’s tradition of box-office failure. No wonder Virgo is trying to imagine a different kind of future, one that would include a Cherokee or a Pathfinder, maybe a house. “I want to be one of those normal people,” he laughs, as the waiter sets down his plate of scrambled eggs. “I’d like to do a boxing movie with Brad Pitt and make some money.”
He is not being entirely facetious. Although he has never boxed, Virgo is a huge fan of the sport. Growing up in the Jamaican beach town of Montego Bay during the 1970s, he had posters of three superstars in his room: Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and Pelé. Ali was his favorite. “He was the first Third World hero,” says Virgo. “As kids, we’d debate whether Superman could beat up Ali. I didn’t want to be a fighter. But I wanted to be like him—strong, smart, goodlooking, cool, tough.”
His home town was a world divided between the servants and the served. “We were always told to be nice to the tourists,” he remembers. “They had a beach we couldn’t go
to, but they could come to our beach and mingle.” At 11, he immigrated to Canada with his brother, his two sisters and mother, a nurse’s aide, who was intent on securing a better education for her kids. Their father, a shoemaker, elected to stay behind. Toronto was hard at first. Virgo endured the embarrassment of attending English-as-a-second-language class to have his Jamaican accent neutralized—“they beat it out of you,” he recalls.
He spent his teenage years in a public housing project, but rejects the cliché of the hard-luck immigrant overcoming the odds. His luck has not been so bad. After high school, his interest in men’s fashion led to a job as a window dresser. Then, pursuing a love for movies, he spent a year studying at the Canadian Film Centre, where he directed an award-winning short and completed his script for Rude.
A surreal weave of stories set in a housing project, Rude is the first feature created entirely by black Canadian filmmakers, and it is a highly accomplished directing debut. Playing both poet and provocateur, Virgo sabotages black male stereotypes with some incendiary sexual and racial scenarios. He wanted to get people’s attention, and he succeeded. An invitation to the Cannes Film Festival last May catapulted Virgo into the spotlight. But since then, he has become pessimistic about the commercial fate of serious films with nonwhite protagonists. “People don’t want to hear about race or sexism,” he sighs, downing the last of his coffee. “They want to see Dumb and Dumber.” But with various scripts under way, and a Hollywood dream up his sleeve—sending Brad Pitt into the ring as the Great White Hope—Clement Virgo continues to fight for the audience he deserves. He is a contender.
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