Historical Drama The Porter Premieres on CBC

CBC's new series takes us back to 1920s Montreal, as Black railway porters mount a bold stand against oppression

CBC’s new series takes us back to 1920s Montreal, as Black railway porters mount a bold stand against oppression

In 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the very first Black-led labour union, after a civil rights fight across the United States and Canada. CBC drama The Porter describes the history of the union and the Black community in post-First World War Montreal. Set in Little Burgundy (or La Petite-Bourgogne)—a jazz mecca and bustling home to Black Canadians—the drama offers a unique perspective on a scenario viewers may already be surprisingly familiar with. “Part of why I found [the subject matter] really fascinating was because I was really aware that if you watch old movies, you see how the porters are the background in these other people’s stories,” showrunner Marsha Greene explains. “I was interested in showing the world through their eyes.”

Indeed, we’ll follow this civil rights movement from the POV of railway porters Zeke Garrett (Ronnie Rowe, Jr.) and Junior Massey (Aml Ameen), characters subtly evoking A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey in their pursuit of Black justice. “They’re brothers in arms,” explains Greene. “They meet and are bonded through their experiences in the war, but they come home with two very different ideas about the world. Junior is very disillusioned by the system. He doesn’t believe that you can get ahead in the world as it stands and with the powers-that-be, whereas Zeke takes up the mantle to not only get the porters the working conditions they deserve, but really to get the respect and the dignity that he deserves, which is a remnant of how he felt after the war—that the Black soldiers did not get the respect and dignity that they deserved for fighting.”

While logic has always proven “strength in numbers,” Zeke and his colleagues face numerous obstacles in their mission to join forces. “What Zeke is up against is people’s mentality. It’s not the logic,” says Greene. “The idea, particularly for the white workers at that time, to be equal to the porters, was just not something that they were comfortable with. It’s an uphill battle to get people past that mentality to see what they can do together.”

The experience of stepping into the strife of these characters was quite intense for the actors. “I draw from truth in a moment and give myself the freedom to feel what I need to feel. Those words mean something, and I know they’re being said to hurt,” says Rowe of playing Zeke. “To hear those words from someone who is also trying to act in the truth, is tough.”

Through extensive research, the events are based in real history—but to tell a more dramatically effective story, the characters are composites. “There are things that happen within the series that did, in fact, happen in real life, but we fictionalized the characters so that we would have the freedom to take them where they wanted to go,” Greene explains. “When you see real historical figures in the show, who are named, we stuck to the history.”

Running parallel to the porters are the stories of other members of this community. Junior’s wife Marlene (Mouna Traoré) is part of the Black Cross Nurses, based on Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Another storyline revolves around Lucy (Loren Lott), a dancer at the Stardust nightclub, which is loosely based on a real hotspot from the era called Rockhead’s Paradise. “Lucy’s story is really about community struggle, and shade-ism or colourism—the challenges of dark-skinned women and dark-skinned performers vs. light-skinned performers,” says Greene.

What was really important to the creative team was that, despite taking place a century ago, the drama had a modern sensibility, rendering it relevant in 2022. “We wanted it to be a fun, bold, exciting drama. We didn’t want it to feel like, ‘These are all things that happened 100 years ago. Who cares?’ Sadly, there are things that aren’t that different,” Greene reflects. “I remember when I first read the pilot, I was very aware of some of the challenges we’ve had today, in terms of increasing representation in the workforce and how resistant people are to that sometimes. It’s not unlike what was happening with the union then.”

Equally vital to the writers was striking a balance in tone. “We wanted to show what the reality was like for the characters, and specifically for the porters, and show the hardship. But we chose those moments very specifically,” says Greene. “On a lot of shows that depict Black people, it ends up being about servitude. We didn’t want that. For us, it’s a story about ambition and people who are coming up against different obstacles in their circumstances. They’re fighting through those to achieve success or to be free, in a way. Our goal was to make the show aspirational.”

The Porter premieres Monday, February 21st at 9 p.m. on CBC