Unarmed Verses is a miracle of a movie – the kind of minor masterpiece that makes clear why documentaries are reaching new heights of popularity. It’s the rare film smart enough to operate on a human scale where grand statements seem tempting and to eschew tidy resolution when life doesn’t offer any.
The film – set in a Toronto low-income housing community facing forced relocation – is the story of Francine Valentine, a Grade 8 student living in the complex with her dad and grandma. Her father brought her to Canada from Antigua at age four for a better education. Her mother stayed behind.
Francine’s curiosity for art is boundless. Hours are spent writing and analyzing poems. Field trips to museums and songwriting sessions at her housing complex’s youth arts program fill her time. She’s ablaze with creative talent.
But Francine’s too shy to share her art. She’s also a fat Black girl, which seems to inform the shyness. Francine is tragically aware of how the creative world has no space for people who look like her. She might be a genuine genius, but on her bedroom poster of two white girls, she’s written “perfect.” On her own photo, “stupid.” She regards a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit with awe, but her face falls when she learns his girlfriend was Madonna.
The film demonstrates the effect of institutional anti-Black racism on a girl like Francine. She has every reason to recognize her greatness but is challenged in every direction. Director Charles Officer deftly weaves this story with hope that’s always justified and never maudlin.