Why an all-Black creative team made history when making The Porter
New series an 'uplifting and honest depiction' of what porters, Black community faced in Canada: Alexa Joy
The CBC co-production of The Porter, a new TV series inspired by true events, tells the story of the first Black union in North America.
The telling of this monumental chapter in Canadian history is accompanied by the uplifting and honest depiction of what porters and the Black community faced in Canada and the U.S. in the 1920s.
Some people might have questions about the series, like: who were the porters? What did porters do? Did this really happen in Canada?
And the common national rebuttal: Canada has a Black history?
The answer to the last question is, yes. We have just more than 400 years of Black history in Canada. And while this series will probably be an entry point for some viewers' understanding of what Black people endured throughout Canada's history, the leading cast and crew of The Porter have developed a bona fide series that hopes to educate and entertain.
The rarity of having one of, or arguably the first, predominantly Black television series being shot outside of Toronto is notable (honourable mention goes to Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes — a must-watch).
Naturally, Winnipeg came through in its efforts to show our talent and support for this project.
So last summer I went behind the scenes to capture the essence of this production.
WATCH | Co-creator Arnold Pinnock gives Alexa Joy a behind-the-scenes tour on set of The Porter:
But first — who were the porters?
In 1992, Lee Williams, who was a porter in the 1930s and 1940s, recalled that "we [were] treated as third-class citizens. The whites worked in dining cars and we worked in the sleeping cars. They gave us food that should have been thrown away."
Black men made up the demographic of sleeping car porters, who were called "George" by white patrons, named after George M. Pullman, inventor of the luxury railcars that were introduced in Canada in the 1870s. Though some would like to believe that the Black men who served on these trains were happy and willing to dedicate their lives to this industry, the discrimination these men encountered was anything but pleasant.
Being a porter was the only job Black men could apply for in the Canadian railway system. Facing years of traumatic and abusive anti-Black policies, procedures and practices, they decided to establish the Order of the Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP) in 1917.
After being denied entry to the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees (a union only permitted only for white employees), OSCP formed as the first Black union in North America.
Sense of excitement, responsibility for actors
It's fitting that the series was filmed in the birthplace of this union, Winnipeg.
"We all know what this means and how rare is it to be able to do something like this, especially in a place like Manitoba,'' actor Mouna Traoré told me.
The actors I spoke with described both excitement and a sense of responsibility in assisting in the portrayal of this historic period of time in Black history.
WATCH | Alexa Joy talks to cast and crew about making history while making The Porter:
Ronnie Rowe Jr. (who plays Zeke Garrett in the series) shared what he hopes viewers will retain from, and enjoy about, The Porter.
"What drew me to the role was the history and how it was going to educate … and how important the Black culture was in history," Rowe Jr. said.
The creative dream team — Charles Officer and R.T. Thorne (show directors), co-writer Marsha Greene and co-creator Arnold Pinnock (alongside Bruce Ramsay) — spoke to the development of the series and why it took 12 years to come together.
"A 12-year love affair," Pinnock called it.
At one point, Officer and I discussed the connection between telling our stories now and the events of 2020 — as I put it, the era of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd.
"The broadcasters have often not seen the relevance of our stories. It's taken the time and some tragedy to realize the importance of our stories," Officer told me.
Black talent behind the scenes
Greene talked about why they wanted to ensure that the writing staff was predominately Black. She said it actually changed the dynamic of the creative process.
"I found myself sharing stories that I think I might not have otherwise, or recalling things that I might not have otherwise," she said.
"I think that was a part of me that kind of unlocked a little bit, knowing that you were going to share something personal or or painful … except you would be in the company of other people who maybe would understand."
Never have I been in hair and makeup with someone who's from the same island as my dad was.- Ray Strachan
Winnipeg actor Ray Strachan is a veteran in the industry. But working on the set of The Porter was a new kind of experience, he said.
"It's amazing that I've been on many sets before … but never have I been in hair and makeup with someone who's from the same island as my dad was," he told me.
"It just opens up these different conversations and you get a closer bond."
It also informed the content. The series creators hope you'll see a narrative that shows the realities of the Black experience, without always invoking this traumatic narrative that we're all so used to seeing.
Here's how Greene put it: "Often when we watch period shows about the Black community it is about slavery or servitude or whatever, and we really, really tried to find a balance, and really lean into, I think, all of the ways in which they resisted."
The Porter is far from a "Canadian Heritage" moment. In fact, what's so satisfying and inspiring about this series is how effortlessly it weaves together the fiction with non-fiction.
It is entertaining, captivating and real; a show that was written and created by an all-Black writers room, portrayed by an all-Black cast and supported by a stellar predominately Black (and Manitoba) crew.
If The Porter does not get the green light for a second series, then I'll officially lose faith in the Canadian film and television industry. Not to mention, it's 2022 — and it's only now that we're getting a series like this.
I hope The Porter will be the first of countless Black-led productions filmed across the country.
I'm confident that no matter who tunes in to The Porter, Canada is about to embark on the next movement in the film and television industry — Black content by Black creators — and I think it's safe to say it's about time.
CBC's Uncensored — a show airing on Information Radio — explores the realities facing Black communities in Canada, including Manitoba.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.