CBC’s ‘groundbreaking’ new drama series ‘The Porter’ is a story of Black ambition

When CBC’s “The Porter” debuts Monday, it will become one of the network’s largest Black-led television series, ringing in Black History Month in a “powerful” way, says Toronto star Ronnie Rowe Jr., who adds that he’s “honoured to be a part of history.”

Set in 1920s Montreal and Chicago, the hourlong drama — which will also air on BET in the United States — tells the oft-forgotten story of Canada’s Black train porters.

The series narrows its focus to two men fighting against race and class limits in their pursuit of a better life.

U.K.-born, Toronto-based actor, writer and co-creator Arnold Pinnock says he wasn’t always aware of this part of Canada’s history, but once he discovered it, felt “propelled” to find it a platform.

The project boasts a largely Black Canadian creative team, including writers Marsha Greene and Annmarie Morais, and directors Charles Officer and R.T. Thorne.

Aml Ameen of “Sense8” plays Junior, a train porter who channels his hunger for something more by bootlegging booze on the side, while Rowe plays Zeke, who fights for change by attempting to unionize his fellow Black porters. Their diverging choices test their friendship and their families.

Ameen says Junior is focused on change “now,” while Zeke is more of a “futurist.” He likens their differences to those between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

“Throughout recent Black history, there have been different people who have fought differently about how to get things done,” he says.

“You need the people that are disruptive and you need the people that formulate the plan.

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“At a certain juncture of your life, you might have to take certain paths; your inner workings decide who you’re going to be and you can’t resist it. Our potential to explore this is beautiful.”

The women of the series, too, work in their own ways to blaze a path forward.

There’s Marlene, a Black Cross Nurse and Junior’s wife, played by Toronto’s Mouna Traoré; Lucy, a dancer friend of Zeke whose dream of being a star hits countless obstacles including colourism, and is played by Californian Loren Lott; and Miss Queenie, a gambling kingpin who flips between rival and teammate for Junior, and who is played by Brampton, Ont.’s Olunike Adeliyi.

Though her character is often the show’s brightest light thanks to her singing and dancing, Lott says, “Digging into myself and a lot of things that I’ve been through as a dark-skinned woman, I didn’t expect for the journey of playing her — though super fun and wild — to be as emotional.”

For Adeliyi, too, playing Miss Queenie was a moving experience that went beyond the page.

“I think it’s inspiring for the audience to watch someone at that time who is Black and female and taking up space the way she is, because that’s what we all want to do,” she says.

“This gives us an opportunity to see that it doesn’t matter what the environment or climate is, you always should be unapologetic and live the way you want.”

As for Traoré, she says playing Marlene was a thrill not only because of the character’s “disruptive” nature, but because she was able to share scenes with the award-winning Alfre Woodard, who serves as executive producer and plays the role of Fay, a brassy brothel worker.

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“It was a masterclass everyday, just sitting with her and watching her work. She is somebody I grew up watching,” says Traoré.

“She’s on my vision board of who to embody and embrace, so it was a full-circle moment.”

Pinnock and co-creator Bruce Ramsay — both have small roles in the series — did considerable research, and hired a historical consultant who tipped them off to historical tidbits adapted into the show, including how Black men were shipped across the border in a box to work for the railway.

A cultural sensitivity consultant held biweekly meetings to discuss sensitive subject matter and questions from the Black and white cast and crew, while a therapist/social worker provided on-set support during the shooting of sensitive scenes.

“It provided beautiful, open dialogue,” says Greene.

“Because it’s emotional to write it, emotional to direct it, emotional to act it, emotional to watch it. To be able to be like, ‘I need 10 minutes, I just want to go and talk this out’ was an amazing resource to have.”

The Porter proves “groundbreaking” not only in the story it has to tell, but in its sumptuous visuals and production value, says Ameen.

“The artistry draws you in in a very particular way, and it paints Black people in these beautifully vintage art pieces,” he says of the series, largely shot in Winnipeg.

“Canadians should be very proud of the visionary approach that was taken towards this project.”

Ultimately, says Thorne, “The Porter” is “a story of Black ambition,” and meant to be aspirational.

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“We want you to feel the characters’ humanity, we want you to feel their joy, because you’ve got to fight oppression with a willingness to do what you have to do but also with laughter.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2023.


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