Cannes Lions

Black Ice

ON RUNNING, Zurich / ON / 2022

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Film

Overview

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Credits

Overview

Background

The brief was fairly simple and open: to tell the story of Akwasi Frimpong, the first Black male Skeleton athlete in Olympic history. Frimpong had risen from humble origins in Ghana to become the Dutch National 200m sprint champion, a career stalled by citizenship issues and injury. Making a radical switch to bobsled, Frimpong qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics, becoming the first African athlete to win an elite Skeleton race. With the film set to release as Frimpong prepared to compete at the 2022 Games, he would no longer be competing only for himself or one country, but for an entire continent. Given that Frimpong had become an inspiring role model and symbol of modern Africa, the film needed to harness the force of his personality and gravitas in a unique way. That meant making him a superhero.

Idea

Instead of writing ‘traditional’ scripts, the director chose to tell the story in the form of a graphic novel – read aloud by African children. This form rang true with Frimpong’s roots, but it also accentuated his story’s drama and his incredible personality and perseverance. The only difference between Frimpong and superheroes from a movie is that he is actually real: his superpower is resilience.

It was important for Frimpong’s own appeal to speak for itself, and that the creative ideas harnessed this. Following Frimpong’s own suit design, the director drew heavily from the black-and-white style of the original Phantom comics. Present-day Africa would be shot in full colour, with the comic-book-style segments in monochrome. The animation would be overlaid symbolising Frimpong’s journey: from running away from a lion as a child to chasing down a rabbit at 90mph on the sledge track. No longer the hunted, now the hunter.

Strategy

On as a brand places value on perseverance and endurance in the face of adversity. To amplify this, their entertainment champions athletes and stories that resonate closely with those brand values – and Frimpong’s story is the perfect fit.

However, it was equally important for the project to stay true to Frimpong and his values, to maximise the impact he was already having on Black and African children worldwide. The superhero origin story fits this perfectly – providing drama suitable for the story, as well as the personal focus needed for such a big personality. So while the events of the story seem comic book-inspired, everything is based on true life events.

Execution

The film needed to work visually as a comic book origin story. This meant very simple backgrounds and heavy black shadows with side lighting and hard top lighting. The interplay between this and Akwasi’s black suit and white snow was always a theme. But everything in the film can be traced back to actual events and how Frimpong saw himself at different times in his life.

Frimpong was heavily inspired by Afrofuturism and the art, music and cinema around that. So as well as Afrofuturist superhero aesthetics, the project reflected as much authentic Ghanaian culture as possible. For example, the woman playing Frimpong’s grandma is from his town, and Ghanaian singers were used in the music. Overall, the film had to be as original as Frimpong’s own unique journey, but in a tradition that was true to his roots and his cultural staying power: a symbol of modern Africa.

Outcome

Sadly, Frimpong’s trials were not over. He reached the 2018 Games partly thanks to a quota by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for athletes from countries unrepresented in winter sports. But this quota was retracted by 2022, meaning Frimpong had to compete as normal, despite all the odds stacked against him.

His Olympic hopes were dashed when he contracted Covid during his qualifiers – missing qualifying by just three places.

Despite this, the film and Frimpong’s story resonated widely. It launched on On Running’s website and YouTube and was amplified by articles in ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other leading publications with a total online readership of 729 million. Much coverage circled around the debate: should the IOC do more to give Black winter athletes a fighting chance? With Frimpong outspoken on the issue, pressure on the IOC led to a U-turn: they will now reinstate the quota.

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