The Porter finally centres Black ambition on Canadian television — and it's a revelation
Vibrant characters and a rich setting have Amanda Parris hooked on the new CBC period drama
Black Light is a column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
The Porter premiered on CBC this week. Set in the heart of St. Antoine, a Black community in Montreal, it is inspired by the real history of Black Canadian train porters in the 1920s and their struggle to build a labour union across North America.
It's a time period rich with narrative possibility, and the train porters — long-time background players throughout cinema history — receive top billing for the first time. But beyond that initial premise, the series introduces us to a vibrant world of stylish gangsters, imperfect revolutionary movements, sophisticated jazz clubs and an array of conflicted, compelling and powerful characters. As co-showrunner Marsha Greene told me when I interviewed the cast and creators during a launch event, "We really felt that the show was about Black ambition."
Reflecting on this idea of Black ambition, I was reminded of the quote: "I am my ancestors' wildest dreams." You've probably seen it floating around on social media, perhaps inscribed on a T-shirt or maybe even hanging on someone's wall. The first time I read it, I found it inspiring. And then — as with most initially inspiring things that I see on the internet — there was an inevitable backlash. A number of people have decried the arrogance inherent to the idea that you, me, us, could ever be the wildest iteration of our ancestors' dreams. And true to their point, the dreams and ambitions of the characters in The Porter aren't self-sacrificial yearnings for a better tomorrow. Whether they are organizing unions, bootlegging liquor or training for stardom, these characters want to make their lives better today.
There is something revelatory about a period drama centred on the ambitions of Black characters. Reflecting on other films and television series that I've watched in this genre, the focus has often been on survival in the midst of suffering or resistance in the midst of oppression. And while The Porter illustrates the many real structural limitations and violence within the period, it doesn't stay there.
As series director (alongside Charles Officer) and executive producer R.T. Thorne told me, "Like everyday life now, even when forces of oppression are on us, our characters have places to find that joy and also just chase their dreams. No matter what era you're in, you're still doing that no matter what the world has for you."
Conflict in The Porter is found not only in the larger systems of oppression but also in relationships between Black characters as they challenge each other, grow in different directions, employ different strategies and realize the divergence in their goals.
A prime example of this can be found in the charismatic lead character Junior Massey (Aml Ameen). Our first introduction to him is in a tense standoff with a police officer, defiance etched on his face. Junior bows his head to no one. A natural hustler always considering every angle, Massey is a porter who can play the game but refuses to be played by it. His drive to not only provide for his family but also to do so on his own terms, playing in the grey areas of morality but always with his head held high, feels familiar. As Ameen noted when we spoke, Junior Massey is "a rebel of his time, but a rebel that can be identified in this era."
In contrast to Junior is his wife Marlene Massey (Mouna Traoré). While Junior is often holding shady alleyway meetings and plotting below-the-line manoeuvres, it is Marlene, a devout Christian, who we see parenting their son Teddy and managing the household. But Marlene's story and her ambitions are not limited to the domestic sphere. She works as a Black Cross Nurse as part of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association. (A historic tentpole of Black ambition, this sprawling, magnificent entity deserves its own series.) And Marlene goes toe to toe, eyes blazing, with the chapter's sexist and penny-pinching male leadership.
Co-showrunner Annemarie Morais described the community of St. Antoine (later known as Little Burgundy) as a character in the series — one that is maintained and sustained by women.
"A lot of these porters were away for stretches at a time," she says. "We wanted to know about the world that exists when they're gone. And that often is women as the backbone of keeping this community sustained and thriving and knit together. As female showrunners, that was important to us."
This world is filled not only with clubs and associations but also with brothels and gambling houses. We see characters dealing with issues of colourism, living with yet-to-be-diagnosed neurodivergences and engaged in passionate closeted sexualities.
Liberating the narrative from genre confines makes The Porter incredibly exciting television. During Episode 2, I found myself feeling like I was watching a heist film. In Episode 3, there were hints of a spy thriller. With Caribbean dialects smoothly moving in and out of the dialogue, the series reminds us that the story of the porters is also a story of Black diaspora. As Arnold Pinnock, who created the show with Bruce Ramsay, told me, "These men and women were not only from the southern States, but also from these small little [places] in the Caribbean: Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, Guyana. They came to this country and they actually changed policy."
It feels like there are so many possibilities for The Porter and its sprawling world. I'm excited to watch these characters work toward their wildest dreams.
Take a video tour of The Porter set:
Watch The Porter on CBC Gem. New episodes air Mondays at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT) on CBC and CBC Gem.