Building a beachhead
Vinessa Antoine as Marcie Diggs in Diggstown.
Floyd Kane didn’t see Black Nova Scotians on the screen or behind the cameras. With his hit TV show Diggstown, he’s changing all that
Floyd Kane saw a big problem in the local film and television industry.
There were few people of colour writing and fewer opportunities for marginalized groups in the industry.
Tourism Nova Scotia’s advertisements socked it home.
“They used to have tours of Nova Scotia which were either beauty shots of Nova Scotia, people sailing, being on Citadel Hill, having like lobster dinners, and whatnot,” he says. “Everyone in those commercials was a white person. There were no people of colour selling those commercials, so you never felt included. You didn’t feel connected because that’s not a reflection of the real population and the diversity and the people of the province.”
Years later, Kane’s goal was to find a way to reframe Nova Scotia’s narrative, to also prominently includes people of colour. He slowly found this way in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Today, he’s the creator, showrunner, executive producer and writer for CBC legal drama Diggstown. Getting here wasn’t easy.
Law school at Dalhousie taught Kane a lot more than how to be a lawyer. It gave him new inspiration for creative writing. Studying books and screenplays, he learned about film writing.
But he didn’t intend to create a legal show.
“The first thought around … Diggstown was the idea of a Black woman surfing on Martinique Beach — that image,” he recalls. “Everything in the show stems from that. When I was thinking about the show, it was more so about … what haven’t we seen on television.”
Two things came to mind. Canadians never saw a Black Nova Scotian woman in a period piece or a story about a contemporary racialized career woman. The other was that recurring image of a surfer on Martinique Beach.
“I just remember thinking like it would be the image of Marcie … surfing on that body of water,” he says. “That was the thing that inspired me right off the bat.”
From there, the show started taking shape. Kane began mapping out his vision, and talked with some friends who were legal aid lawyers.
“I thought, ‘Oh, we haven’t seen this before,’” he says. “We haven’t seen the lawyers who represent people who don’t have the money to go out and afford a private lawyer. It was really interesting, and that was interesting to me. That’s how the bones of the show started to take shape.”
Veteran actor Vinessa Antoine plays Marcie Diggs, the show’s eponymous lead character. After acting stints in New York and Los Angeles, the Torontonian came back to Canada to take on the lead role. After auditioning, Antoine felt she was on the cusp of something special.
“Oh wow, this is for the lead,” she says. “This is cool. This is different. I had gone out on a couple of lead shows, but I hadn’t gone out on anything in Canada. It was within the first couple of pages of the script I was like, ‘Whoa, she’s a surfer.’ This is very different; I haven’t seen this. It was more about the writing that kept me drawn to it. I was like, ‘Well I want to have an opportunity to be seen for this, and I feel like I can do this.’”
Marcie Diggs is intense. The character is complex: emotional, tenacious, tough, and vulnerable. A Halifax legal aid lawyer born and raised in North Preston, one of Canada’s first and largest Black communities. The character deals with personal trauma as her aunt, who she was defending in a case, dies by suicide.
“(It) led her into the question of what is important, what does she want to do with her life,” Antoine says. “She decided to become a legal aid lawyer to help people who don’t have the money and the means and resources to get a good lawyer. By season one, we’ve met her after she’s been gone for a long time. Now it’s her first days into legal aid, she rolls up her sleeves and she starts helping people in her community.”
The character resonates for Antoine.
“I think the experience of women of colour, particularly Black women in this country, has not been looked at in a real way,” she says. “I related to her obviously for the racism that many women and I endured in this country and also this real need to find a place, as a Canadian woman and be seen in a predominantly white, male, straight community.”
On the show, Shailene Garnett plays Iris Beals, a smart-ass social worker devoted to helping others. As with Antoine, the audition hooked her.
“It’s one-of-a-kind in Canada,” she says. “Floyd believes in it, and he’s done a lot to make the most of it. He’s talking about real-life stories or heavily inspired by real life stories that you don’t often see on the air. I’ve had people reach out and say, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool that we’re talking about it.’”
Iris has gone through a career transformation within the first two seasons. In season one, she was an intake coordinator at Halifax Legal Aid. Since then, Iris went to school and worked toward becoming a social worker at the office, a move that pays off in the upcoming season.
“Season two, she was learning the ropes,” Garnett says. “She has her mentors, she asks a lot of questions, but she was taking a lot of flak from people because she didn’t know when to stand up. In season three, she’s found her footing, and she can stand up for what she believes is right … She has a lot of more opportunities to make a difference, and you can start to see what her passions are.”
Transformation is a key theme through the upcoming season. While the pandemic was initially not part of the script, Kane rethought that during the long hiatus.
“Looking at post-COVID, what are lawsuits going to look like … out of this situation that’s impacted all of us,” Kane says. “The most obvious one was the long-term care home situation.”
Since Diggstown focuses on the story of getting people through the system, Kane shifted the focus upon seeing a pandemic press conference then-premier Stephen McNeil gave where he referred to the Preston area as a hotspot for COVID-19 cases, while not singling out any white communities.
“You saw it play out in terms of the outrage people expressed,” he says. “(It) felt like more of the same … Why are we being stigmatized? So I wanted to kind of dig into that.”
Diggstown will introduce new characters in season three, including Nina Francis (played by Jully Black). She is a continuing care assistant charged with criminal negligence and assault during the pandemic.
“We get into the institutional aspects of the long-term care facility, trying to put actual blame on Nina, for the other support workers bringing COVID into the facility, and Marcie challenging that idea,” Kane says. “It became about how do we change … There’s a moment where Doug realizes that he may not want to be a legal aid anymore. There’s a moment where everybody’s just getting tired of the basic legal aid system, and it’s overworked, it’s overrun.”
Nicole Munoz joins the cast as competitive Crown attorney Ellery Lopez.
She fell in love with the show when she saw the first episode.
“It’s a Canadian show talking about real problems in an incredible, well thought-out way,” she says. “I think Floyd does an incredible job of presenting these types of systemic issues to an audience, Canadian families, people who might not necessarily have their eyes open to what’s going on but can get a taste of what’s happening in our political world.”
Munoz see parallels in her own life.
“We have some things in common in terms of growth and self-discovery,” she says. “It’s the opportunity to look into oneself and be faced with what your values are, who you support, and realizing what you can do to make a difference in this world. With COVID, it’s put a stop to many things … You had time to realize what was going on and feel how that made you feel. I got to do some work on what I can do to change these things or what I can do to help change these things. Both Ellery and I go through that this year.”
While researching for her role, Munoz came across something reflecting what Diggstown represents to her.
“I was looking online about the Halifax law system and courts,” she says. “There are tons of videos, and I was watching a young man in court. He was speaking on something, and he said, ‘The law itself has been used to perpetuate racism, and thus should play a part in remedying that.’ I think that’s pretty much sums it up.”
Antoine says Season 3, which recently finished airing and is now available for streaming, undergoes a significant shift at the midpoint.
“If you have been watching season one or two and are expecting something similar in three, you’re going to be taken for a whole new ride,” she says. “We are hitting very intense subject matter and you know it’s been a year or so since we’ve seen these characters … What we know is Diggstown so far will be pretty much flipped on its head, and then we go on a major change.”
Antoine wants her work to encourage people.
“I hope people aren’t feeling as lonely, helpless, angry, sad, and all of the that we’ve all had to endure,” she says. “We’ve had a big emotional time in the last couple of years in this country. I hope that they’re able to see themselves and know that they’re not crazy … I hope that they know, not that it’s going to get better, but know it’s heavy, and it’s going to be OK.”
Kane has already changed Nova Scotia’s film and television industry. Recently, he created the Edna and Velma Thomas Kane Writers Award, a scholarship for students who identify as being of African descent to support their work towards careers of writing. Kane also has created positions in his writing room for women of colour.
“When it comes to building crew who are BIPOC in Nova Scotia, I want the show to have that same effect,” he says. “I want the people who work on my show to work on Moonshine and to work on that Bill Nye Netflix show. I want to be part of the creation of this group of artists who are there and available and more hungry to work, so that people can stop saying ‘I can’t find anybody.’ We have more BIPOC writers working in Canada than ever before.”
Correction: Due to a fact-checking error, we misspelled Vinessa Antoine’s name in the print edition of this story. The story above has been corrected. We regret the errors and have adjusted our editing processes to prevent their recurrence.