Interview: Filmmaker William Armstrong turns to crowdfunding to finish Gridiron Underground, a documentary on black players in the CFL

The CFL's history of providing opportunities for black players who were discriminated against in American football is one of the most interesting elements of the league, and it's the focus of a new documentary set to air on TSN this fall—if enough people back it. Filmmaker William Armstrong spoke to 55-Yard Line last week about the project, titled Gridiron Underground. Armstrong, president of Strongwall Productions, said there's a compelling story here, and one that goes beyond just sports.

"It's an hour-long documentary about the waves of African-Americans who came to Canada to play in the CFL," he said. "Canadians really opened their arms to them, and the legacy of African-Americans in the CFL is huge. ...Football and sport in general is its mode of transport, but the story is a more general one of perseverance and hope."

You can see an impressive trailer Armstrong's put together for the project here, complete with snippets of interviews with Warren Moon, Henry Burris and Bernie Custis:

Perseverance and hope describes the project to date, too. Armstrong has been working on this for several years, and that involved plenty of cross-continent trips to track down former players and interview them, but he accomplished that without major funding.

"Out of my own pocket and money I've raised, we've been travelling all around North America for the past few years," Armstrong said. "We've been working on it for three or four years now."

Now, he and his team are launching an Indiegogo campaign in the next few days to raise the funds necessary to finish the project. They're looking for $40,000, which Armstrong said will be used to turn the film into a polished, finished product. He already has an agreement with TSN to air it if he's able to finish it.

(Update: The campaign is live here.)

"This isn't going into anyone's pockets; it's to obtain archival material, music, narrating, post-production and audio-visual material," he said.

Armstrong sees the crowdfunding movement as an innovative way to connect with his project's audience, enlist their support, and line up copies and other rewards for them before the film's finished.

"This is the way we're going to get it to the people," he said.

As per the story itself? It covers a broad swathe of the remarkable history of black players in Canadian football, from Custis becoming the first black starting quarterback in professional football in 1951 (before even the official formation of the CFL) to Moon's incredible career with the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1970s and 1980s to the success of current quarterbacks like Burris who followed in their footsteps. Armstrong said the way the CFL and its fans embraced players who weren't initially given a chance south of the border because of their skin colour says a lot of good things about the league, and about the country.

"It's really the only professional sports league in Canada that reflects our own values, in a way," Armstrong said. "It reinforces all the great things about the country we've built; tolerance, taking in those who have been discarded, giving people second chances and our attempts to be colour-blind."

It's notable that the CFL's racial history isn't perfect, though, as former players like Cookie Gilchrist have said they experienced significant racism in Canada. Moreover, while players like Custis and Chuck Ealey got the opportunity to shine at quarterback in the CFL after being passed over by professional American football, they still went through plenty north of the border, with Custis facing taunts from rival players and even being moved to halfback before the 1952 season. Armstrong said his film will cover the less-positive moments as well.

"I want a balanced approach to telling the story," he said. "The story isn't all wave-the-flag."

He said his focus is to try and present something that will fairly portray the experiences of the players he talked to.

"I owe them a telling of their story in an accurate and beautiful way."

Armstrong said he has a deep passion for the CFL and the obstacles it's overcome over the years, which motivated him to do this project.

"The CFL, for me, has a really warm spot in my heart," he said. "It's grassroots and it's a reflection of the way I see the world and the way I see Canada. People around Canada have rallied around this institution and refused to let it die."

The Gridiron Underground funding campaign can be found here.