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Canada is making a giant step forward in representation with the civil rights drama The Porter, to air on the CBC and BET+ stateside.
The eight-parter about unionizing North American Black train porters and little-known Black Canadian history is part of a revolution in Canadian TV toward first-time Black representation. TV screens north of the border have hosted few homegrown series with people of color on or behind the camera, and The Porter boasts a fully Black Canadian creative team.
“In our careers, we have been the only or the other, and have been sort of secondary characters in the stories of others and white culture. So to have the opportunity to be front and center in our story, to be filling the room with the other and to share with the world a part of this hidden history, it’s a pretty powerful moment,” co-creator, writer and co-showrunner Annmarie Morais tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Set in the roaring 1920s, the drama from Inferno Pictures and Sienna Films follows Black railway porters and war buddies Junior Massey and Zeke Garrett, played by Aml Ameen and Ronnie Rowe Jr., who hustle, dream, cross borders and confront racial barriers on and off the railways that crossed North America from Montreal to Chicago and Detroit.
While Junior tries to strike it rich in gambling and bootlegging, Zeke fights the railway to unionize Black porters. “It’s rare that a project has the top five characters on any call sheet when you show up for work that is representative of the country you’ve been fighting to give space to and tell stories about, so it’s a pretty remarkable experience,” series co-director and executive producer Charles Officer says.
The Porter also stars Mouna Traoré, Loren Lott, Olunike Adeliyi, series co-creator Arnold Pinnock and Clemency star Alfre Woodard, who plays the character of Fay and also executive produces. The Canadian drama about Black train porters working long hours for low pay also portrays them facing unrelenting oppression as Black Canadians and subjugation as workers.
Officer says the Black Canadian cast and creative, on or off set, were supported when they may have been emotionally triggered by white actors playing racist characters, including local cops and railway executives. In The Porter, characters use the N-word as a racial slur and, in one episode, recite the children’s rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” with racist connotations.
That brought immediate challenges to cast and creative during table readings and on set. However, much dialogue was set in an historical context. “During rehearsals, I would tell actors: ‘You don’t have to use that word; we know what that word is,'” Officer recounts. “And even the young folks and kids on set, the community performers we had around, we were very much aware of the scenes that we were shooting and the trauma that’s attached to what we were trying to realize.”
But he adds that the use of the N-word, heard in myriad ways in real life by Black members of the cast and creative creative on The Porter, was essential for authenticity, as much of the drama takes place in St. Antoine, Montreal, which was known as the Harlem of the North during the 1920s.
“There were moments where we cringed and moments where we questioned: ‘Do I leave?’ But we had to go through it,” says Officer. “As uncomfortable as it was — and these moments are uncomfortable — they were real and they happened here, to people’s surprise, here in Canada, and it’s been going on.”
And the porters portrayed in the CBC/BET+ drama, their jobs born out of the end of slavery, were inseparable from the trains that had a constant presence in The Porter. “Obviously, the life of the porter doesn’t exist without the train,” Morais explains, as the railway is depicted alongside period shops, boarding houses and churches in 1920s Montreal.
Virtually all the railway car interiors in The Porter were built in a Winnipeg studio, and were set on top of hydraulics to control the lurching or swaying of trains as they steamed along. While also making use of the Prairie Dog heritage train and railway in Winnipeg, the challenge of the arts department and set builders was to convey the confined space of the trains alongside their beauty and elegance.
“We had to get cameras in there and decide which walls had to come out, and I think we made it work, because it’s not like we could shoot on the train and call them up and just shoot whenever we wanted. We had windows to do everything, and once it was done, we weren’t going back,” Officer recalls.
Now that Officer, Morais and the rest of the Porter creative team have eight episodes in the can, there’s an overwhelming sense that the homegrown drama has to secure a second-season renewal in order to keep alive the drive for more Black Canadians on local TV sets and streaming services.
“Listen, I’m no broadcaster. I’m no executive. But I understand what is missing from the canon of television and, specifically, in [Canada]. And given the story of the first season, I truly believe that people are going to want to know what’s coming next,” Officer says.
“We had a wonderful team of writers who really put their heart, their soul, their own experiences into this first season, and we built it in a way that there are more seasons to answer, more questions and to go on some deeper journeys with the family of people that we’ve come to love. So, we’re hoping to have the opportunity to explore that,” Morais adds.
The Porter debuts in Canada on the CBC on Feb. 21. The series was created by Pinnock, Bruce Ramsay, Morais, Marsha Greene and Aubrey Nealon. Morais and Greene are showrunners, while Officer and R.T. Thorne directed the series. The Porter is written by Morais, Greene, Andrew Burrows-Trotman, Priscilla White, Pinnock and Ramsay, with Thorne participating in the writers room.
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