a self portrait by Chris Ivey.

In 2017, a fire swept through the 23-story Grenfell Tower in London, killing 72 people. It was one of the deadliest fires in modern British history. Dozens were injured and traumatized and more than 200 families were left homeless.

In 2019, filmmaker and activist Chris Ivey of Hyperboy Films was in London during the anniversary of the disaster when he stumbled upon a bit of news that stunned him. Arconic, a Pittsburgh-based company, made the building’s exterior cladding implicated in accelerating the spread of the fire.

That’s when the 50-year-old North Carolina native decided alerting his fellow Pittsburghers to Arconic’s role in the tragedy was a non-negotiable moral obligation. “Had I known [about Arconic’s role] years ago, I would’ve been advocating on behalf of the victims earlier,” Ivey said.

Ivey is disdainful of the local corporate and political response to the revelation about Arconic’s role in the fire. “My problem is that Pittsburgh’s business and political leadership know all about this, but refuse to act because the company generates so much money.”

Arconic no longer manufactures the cladding, but it is still being sued in British court by survivors of the fire and relatives of the victims. Because of the complexity of the case and the number of defendants, it is expected to be litigated for years unless there is some kind of settlement.

Closer to home, Ivey is adding to Arconic’s headaches with art installations and a media truck featuring multiple video walls for commuters and onlookers to see the allegations against the company. It’s a brutal summary of the North Shore-based corporation’s record.

Chris Ivey and his Arconic media truck. Photo courtesy of Chris Ivey.

Ivey drives the media truck with its electronic billboard Downtown and throughout the city like a town crier when he isn’t parked on the residential street of an Arconic executive or outside of the company’s North Shore headquarters. On Friday, he plans to park outside the Elton John concert at PNC Park in the hope that Sir Elton acknowledges what he is doing from the stage.

Ivey also has an installation at SPACE Gallery Downtown on display through October. It is part of a group show called The Pittsburgh Left. His immersive multichannel video is called “We Are Here — Finding Beauty In the Raw.” It features pieces from his past documentaries and installations, but a central element is the Grenfell Tower disaster and its local connection.

To call Ivey relentless when he gets behind a cause is an understatement. “The next step is to bring victims over here to protest Pittsburgh’s part in the tragedy,” he said.

Recently, the filmmaker heard that members of the Ukrainian community are also angry at Arconic for allegedly supplying the Russians with military material for its invasion. Ivey wants to team up with other locals to highlight that connection, as well.

Though it may seem like it, getting the word out about Arconic and Grenfell Tower isn’t the only thing on Chris Ivey’s mind these days. His recent documentary on local writer Brian Broome is making the rounds and generating acclaim.

Chris Ivey, “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs: South Africa and US, May 25 – July 29, 2018” at the Mattress Factory. Photo by sarah huny young.
Chris Ivey, “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs: South Africa and US, May 25 – July 29, 2018” at the Mattress Factory. Photo by sarah huny young.

The lighthearted and affectionate documentary, “Introducing Brian Broome,” proves Ivey isn’t the angry, one-note bomb thrower he’s often caricatured as by his critics.

Ironically, Ivey originally wanted to do apolitical music videos and commercial work, but local prejudices that limited what Black directors/filmmakers could do in predominantly white media spaces limited his appeal, despite the advertising awards he’d won. When those doors closed, he created side doors for himself.

“People always consider me this angry Black filmmaker,” he said laughing, “but there’s no anger — it’s done out of love. For me, it’s being a voice for the voiceless.”

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.