When the cast wall went up, everyone got a lump in their throats. Headshots of the actors playing the 100-odd characters in The Porter, an eight-part CBC series in partnership with BET. Row after row of faces. Ninety-five per cent of them Black.
The Porter’s creative team – the actor/producers Arnold Pinnock and Bruce Ramsay; the writer/showrunners, Marsha Greene and Annmarie Morais; the directors, Charles Officer and R.T. Thorne – knew that their series was going to be significant. Each had risen, separately, to the top of Canada’s entertainment business. Now they were working together for the first time, on the biggest Black-led television production in Canadian history.
And it’s about Canadian history: the true story of Black railway porters in North America. Hired by white bosses to serve rich travelers, they came together in 1925 from both sides of the border to form the first Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. They sowed the seeds of the Civil Rights movement and helped create a Black middle class.
The team knew their story had everything – complex characters; moral dilemmas both universal and specific; perseverance in the face of institutionalized racism; badass gangsters and nightclub dancers. The porters and the women who built their communities embodied dignity and resilience. Immigrants from the southern U.S., England and the Caribbean, they changed Canadian law, and, as Pinnock puts it, “wove themselves into the fibres of our flag.”
Yet, with a few exceptions, their names were never recorded. Their neighborhoods – Ste. Antoine in Montreal (later Little Burgundy), the Ward in Toronto, Africville in Halifax, Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver – were demolished to make way for bridges and highways. In films such as North By Northwest, they are background figures, human wallpaper. But now, that wall of Black faces was proof that their accomplishments finally would be honoured.
As a history-mad teenager, Pinnock (Combat Hospital, Travelers) was gripped by the porters’ stories. Twelve years ago, he and Ramsay began developing a series about them, talking it up to anyone who would listen. For their first meeting with CBC, Pinnock created a synopsis/treatment/look book, so the executives “could see how deep this story went, and how many directions it could go,” he says. Then he poured coffee on it and kicked it around. “Bruce asked what on Earth I was doing,” Pinnock recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘I want this book to look as though someone found it in their grandparents’ attic.’ That’s how it was for me, finding these amazing, untold stories of Black Canadian history.”
Everyone loved the idea; everyone always added “but…” Creative teams formed and disbanded. Scripts were written and rewritten. Countless meetings took place at the Toronto restaurant Harlem Underground. The restaurant closed for good; Pinnock kept going. “I interviewed porters in their late 80s, who are no longer with us,” he says. “I held the hands of women in their 90s, who grabbed me and said, ‘Tell our story.’ That kind of weight has an impact on you. This is more to me than just a show.”
Seven years in, the Toronto-based production company Sienna Films came on board, followed by CBC and BET. At last, in June, 2021, cameras rolled in Winnipeg on a 72-day shoot, where one of the built sets was a train car that rattled and moved. Checking out the details, Ramsay walked into the car to find Pinnock, who was doing the same. They wrapped their arms around one another and dissolved in tears.
Back in the summer of 2020, as COVID raged and Black Lives Matter protests roiled North American cities, The Porter’s creative team was meeting over Zoom. They’d worked out much of their story, set in Montreal. Their two leads, porters Junior and Zeke, choose opposing routes to better their lives: Zeke (Ronnie Rowe) risks his job – and life – to create the union. Junior (Aml Ameen), an embittered First World War veteran, runs booze and numbers with Queenie (Olunike Adeliyi), an alluring Chicago gangster. Junior’s wife, Marlene (Mouna Traore), a Black Cross nurse, wants to build a community clinic. And Lucy (Loren Lott), a dancer at the Stardust nightclub, is determined to be a star, despite the colourism inside her own community.
Because Zoom life was wearing thin, Pinnock wanted to energize the team with a surprise. He arranged a virtual visit from the actress Alfre Woodard, a heroine to the group. “They needed a moment-blessing,” Woodard says. “One that recognizes the past, and the dividends it is paying now. Here in the States, we think of Canada as operating post-racial. But everywhere is racial. You can’t be post-racial until you recognize race and the great things that differences and flavours bring you. And what havoc it has wreaked. We needed to say that to each other, to purify our motives and bless the work.”
Woodard became “a proud creative auntie” to the production, and later agreed to act in it. Greene and Morais intended to write a solemn character for her, but she surprised them again: She wanted to play Fay, a whorehouse madam who finds a freedom for herself and inspires Marlene to do the same.
Though Woodard had worked on Black-led sets before, with Spike Lee and others, when she arrived in Winnipeg, “I knew I was in that sweet spot of people at the top of their game,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you get it.” She especially loves the long, glorious shot in episode one, as a group of porters walk to the train together, sharp in their immaculate uniforms, a snap and sizzle in their steps.
“Watching that, I just said, ‘G’wan, fellas, walk it out!’” Woodard says. “You know immediately who they are, the power they have. Because the power position is not always behind the desk. Sometimes the power is the person who keeps that desk placed, dusted, supplied.”
Because of the lengthy development process, “for so long it was just Annmarie and me in a room, writing, unsure if it would ever be made,” Greene says. “So we wrote what we wanted: 100 characters, 8,000 background parts, multiple locations.” It wasn’t until pre-production that they realized how ambitious, how massive the shoot would be.
“We’re not going to lie, Charles and I were overwhelmed many times,” Thorne (Officer’s co-director) says. For example, they planned to shoot in the Winnipeg train station, with its period-perfect vaulted roof, throughout the month of June – and then learned they had only one week. The first week. “The train was literally leaving the station,” Thorne says.
“We had to find the balance of admitting what our capacity was, yet still be ambitious, and get underneath each moment,” Officer says. To add to the drama, Officer’s wife gave birth to their son a week before production began.
They pulled it off because the entire crew shared Pinnock’s sense of mission – that this was a once-in-a-lifetime, game-changing project. “We all dreamt it,” Officer says. “It took the power of all of us dreaming it together to make it happen. It was like a secret handshake without needing the handshake.”
In previous writing rooms, Greene and Morais often shared stories about their lives, but rarely were they asked to tap into their deepest experiences. There weren’t enough Black characters, and they didn’t get enough screen time, to require that. But in The Porter’s all-Black writers’ room, they opened up – about code switching; about humiliations they’d endured from border agents; about the strangers who touched their hair – and everyone else nodded in recognition. Those moments made it into the show, carrying the past into the present.
“When BET came on board, they stressed that they didn’t want us to Blacksplain our experience,” Morais says. “There should be shorthand that our community would instantly understand” – Lucy’s bleaching cream, for example – and everyone else would catch up.
“The way Junior switches into Patois when he’s among friends – I’ve never seen a main character do that in TV history,” Ameen says.
“Usually with Canadian television, we tend to take a safe route to please everybody,” Jordan Oram, the series’ cinematographer, says. “I didn’t want to please everybody. I wanted to represent our people at their best.” He focused his attention on skin tone, and worked with lighting, makeup, costume and production design to complement that, down to the gray of the porter uniforms and the wood tones in the railway cars.
Because The Porter brings to life harrowing scenes of race-based abuse, the production also provided emotional support: an on-set, Winnipeg-based therapist, Heather O’Neale; and Christopher Taylor, an anti-racism advisor, who conducted group discussions where no question was off limits. Nearly everyone, Black and white, experienced at least one moment where they needed to step aside and breathe.
For Greene, it was watching the audition reel for a white chef character who spits a racial slur at Zeke. “Actor after actor saying that word, over and over,” she says. “We know it’s fiction, we wrote it! But sometimes the reality overtook the fiction. It was so overwhelming to realize that these moments were lived by my ancestors, and not spoken of.”
For Thorne, it was a scene where a white border guard humiliates Zeke. “You prepare, you set up the crane, you position the car,” Thorne says. “But then you’re just a witness to something that really happened, and happens now. For a few takes, I couldn’t talk to the gentleman playing the border guard. My emotions would have shown.”
But here’s the other thing BET and the creative team stressed: Though it’s important to depict heavy moments, The Porter at heart is about Black community and family. It’s sexy, joyful, uplifting. “Given the times, the things Black America is railing against, BET didn’t want its audience to come home from their lived experience to watch a televised experience where they felt only the weight of life,” Morais says. “They needed messages other than, ‘I wake up oppressed, I watch TV and feel oppressed.’”
“The Black community is over watching trauma film or TV,” Rowe (Zeke) agrees. “One of the alluring aspects of this project – it focuses on ambition. The five main characters are each pursuing greatness in their own way.”
“It’s a celebration of the diversity of Blackness in Canada,” Traore (Marlene) says. “It reinforces the idea that Black people aren’t a monolith, there isn’t a singular narrative about our experience.”
Winnipeg was shut down for much of the shoot, so after-hours, the cast and crew gathered in each other’s backyards to let off steam. Though they hailed from England, the U.S. and elsewhere, many shared Caribbean roots. “Usually you go through a code switching journey [on a set], but we didn’t have to do that here,” Adeliyi (Queenie) says. “We were our authentic selves.”
On set, they vibed to the 1920s music that Ameen (Junior) always played. They celebrated the wonder on the faces of the child actors as they stepped into the Winnipeg neighbourhood production designer Rejean Labrie had transformed, with false facades, dirt-covered streets, horses and Model T cars. “It was like walking into a time machine,” Traore says. “Like awake dreaming.”
They inhaled the hot-metal smell of the Prairie Dog, a Winnipeg landmark – a 1910s steam engine, plus passenger wagons, boxcars and a caboose – on which they shot many scenes. Thorne is especially proud that he pulled off a tricky sequence in which porter Glenford (Pinnock) runs for the train as it’s huffing away – even though the Prairie Dog took 25 minutes to back up for each take.
During a brief scene in a church, Thorne and Pinnock wanted to goose the energy. They asked the actor playing the preacher, Ernesto Griffith, to deliver an impromptu sermon, “and it went ham,” Loren says. “We blazed into worship.” Someone started singing This Little Light of Mine, and everyone joined in.
They saved the Stardust dance scenes for the end, a revivifying burst after 70 days. When Loren launched into Lucy’s big number, the extras cheered so enthusiastically, the directors had to remind them to act blasé. After the final “Cut,” the band kept playing, the dancers kept dancing, Ameen jumped on stage to hype the crowd, “and we had a party in the 1920s,” Loren says. “We were sweaty and gross at the end. It was wild.”
Now that the The Porter is airing (beginning Feb. 21), what do its creatives hope for? “I hope this introduces Black Canadian history into our education system,” Adeliyi says. “I’ve done African studies, African-American, Caribbean studies, but I’ve yet to see a course in Black Canadian history. That needs to change.”
“I hope Black viewers will realize they have such a claim to the establishment of this nation, such a rich heritage to be proud of,” Morais says. “It changes the way you engage with the world, when you feel empowered by your roots.”
“So many new POC writers have reached out to tell us how much The Porter getting made means to them,” Greene says. “If I never write again, I feel we made something that could make a difference, could inspire people to tell their own stories.”
“We brought in a lot of individuals who’d never worked on sets before and trained them,” Officer says. “We had to negotiate with the network and unions to do that. And the thing is, they were there. They have been there. There has to be more material that asks for them.”
“And it can’t just be incumbent on the Black producers who are making the Black production to seek out the Black crew,” Thorne adds. “Every production should be looking to diversify. It’s not just ‘the right thing to do.’ It’s the profitable thing, because they’ll come with fresh ideas, they’ll safeguard you from making cultural mistakes, they’ll fill the blind spots you don’t know you have.”
“I’m picturing a Black child holding his mother’s hand at a bus stop, and the bus pulls up with an ad for The Porter,” Pinnock says. “And there are Ronnie, Aml, Loren, Olunike and Mouna, all together. They look just like him. And he feels the curiosity I felt to go find out the truth.”
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