The film tells old stories and new ones about O’Ree, a baseball and hockey star from Fredericton, New Brunswick, and a descendant of a South Carolina slave who escaped to Canada. Eleven years after Major League Baseball’s color barrier was broken, O’Ree became known as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” overcoming racism and cheap shots at hockey’s highest levels as he kept a secret that could’ve ended his career: He was blind in his right eye.
It’s not just decades-old stories of racial prejudice that “Willie” covers, but modern ones as well. The film includes testimony of current players from different levels of hockey who have experienced similar problems, most notably former Washington Capital Devante Smith-Pelly, who was racially taunted in Chicago in 2018. For O’Ree, who played several levels of professional hockey until he was 45 years old, threats continued even after the NHL hired him as its diversity ambassador. According to the film, he once received letters from someone threatening to blow up Capital One Arena — then known as MCI Center — during one of his events with children in D.C.
For the past 23 years, O’Ree has been working with the NHL to promote the game to children in places where there has been little exposure to hockey. He helped establish more than 30 youth hockey programs, from New York’s Harlem neighborhood to Oakland, Calif. He also offers advice and comfort to players who have experienced discrimination in the game.
“Names will never hurt you unless you let them,” O’Ree said during a panel discussion on Saturday, though defending himself from high sticks to the face was an entirely different matter, including one incident that left him questioning his future in the game.
Last year, O’Ree earned a long-awaited spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a “builder of the game,” something the film humorously teases as if it weren’t inevitable.
The documentary drew emotional reactions from the Middleburg crowd, including multiple rounds of applause, before the panelists took the stage. Retired player turned hockey analyst Anson Carter — one of 11 black players to suit up for the Capitals in their history — moderated the discussion, which included Caps majority owner (and the film’s executive producer) Ted Leonsis, producer Bryant McBride, director Laurence Mathieu-Leger and O’Ree himself. They started working on the film in March, 2018 and completed it in nine months, stressing the importance of getting this story told to a new generation, especially in today’s divisive political climate.
“Willie is as hard a competitor and winner [as there is]. For him to get in the Hall of Fame is great,” Leonsis said, then brought up what could be O’Ree’s next major honor. “We have to get him the Congressional Gold Medal and get him into the Smithsonian.”
For the film’s backers, the next step is finding a buyer and distributing it, though the extra festival buzz from the Middleburg crowd, many of whom made the trek from D.C., should give it a boost. It’ll next be showing at the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival.
O’Ree also delivered some news: The 84-year-old will soon be retiring from his regular NHL job, though he still plans on making appearances at special events. He says he wants to travel and spend more time with his wife of nearly 50 years, Deljeet.
Along with Leonsis, Caps part-owners Sheila Johnson and Earl Stafford — two of the few black owners of an NHL team — are also executive producers of the film. Johnson is also the founder of the film festival, and she jokingly heckled Carter for forgetting to tell the crowd that she also owns the Caps. Other attendees of the screening included the Fort Dupont ice hockey team — the oldest minority hockey club in North America — and its coach, Neal Henderson, who in December will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Update: “Willie” won the Audience Award for Top Documentary Film at the festival.