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

When CBC’s ‘The Porter’ debuts on Monday, it will become one of the network’s biggest black-led TV series, ringing in Black History Month in a ‘powerful’ way, says Toronto star Ronnie Rowe Jr., who adds that he is “honored to be part of history.

Set in 1920s Montreal and Chicago, the hour-long drama – which will also air on BET in the US – tells the often-forgotten story of Canada’s black train porters.

The series focuses on two men who struggle against racial and class boundaries in their quest for a better life.

UK-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, he felt “driven” to find a platform for it.

The project benefits from a largely black Canadian creative team, including writers Marsha Greene and Annmarie Morais, and directors Charles Officer and RT Thorne.

“Sense8″‘s Aml Ameen plays Junior, a train porter who channels his thirst for something more by smuggling booze on the side, while Rowe plays Zeke, who fights for change by attempting to unionize. his fellow black carriers. Their divergent choices test their friendship and their families.

Ameen says Junior is focused on change “now”, while Zeke is more of a “futurist”. He compares 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 over how to get things done,” he says.

“You need the people who are disrupting and you need the people who are making the plan.

“At some point in your life, you may have to take certain paths; your inner workings decide who you are going to be and you cannot resist it. Our potential to explore this is magnificent.

The women on the show are also working in their own ways to lead the way.

There’s Marlene, a Black Cross nurse and wife of Junior, played by Mouna Traoré from Toronto; Lucy, a dancer friend of Zeke whose dream of being a star comes up against countless obstacles including colorism, and is played by Californian Loren Lott; and Miss Queenie, a kingpin of the game who oscillates between rival and teammate for Junior, and who is played by Olunike Adeliyi from Brampton, Ontario.

Although her character is often the brightest light on the show through her singing and dancing, Lott says, “Digging into myself and finding out a lot of the things that I’ve been through as a dark-skinned woman, I didn’t expect the journey of playing her – while super fun and wild – to be so 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 in that moment who’s black and feminine and taking up space the way she is, because that’s what we all want to do,” says -she.

“It gives us the opportunity to see that no matter the environment or the climate, you should always be shameless and live the way you want.”

As for Traore, she says playing Marlene was fun not only because of the character’s “disruptive” nature, but because she got to share scenes with award-winning Alfre Woodard, who serves as executive producer and plays the role. de Fay, a cheeky brothel clerk.

“It was a masterclass every day, just sitting with her and watching her work. She’s someone I grew up watching,” Traore says.

“She’s on my vision board of who to embody and kiss, so that was a full-loop moment.”

Pinnock and co-creator Bruce Ramsay – both have small roles on the show – did considerable research and hired a historical consultant who briefed them on historical tidbits suitable for the show, including how black men were shipped across the border in a box to work for the railroad.

A cultural sensitivity consultant held bi-weekly meetings to discuss sensitive topics and questions from the black-and-white cast and crew, while a therapist/social worker provided on-set support during the filming of sensitive scenes.

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

“Because it’s moving to write it, moving to make it, moving to play it, moving to watch it. Being able to say ‘I need 10 minutes, I just want to go talk about it’ was an amazing resource to have.”

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

“Artistic talent draws you in in a very particular way and it paints black people in these beautifully vintage works of art,” he says of the series, which is largely filmed in Winnipeg.

“Canadians should be very proud of the visionary approach taken to this project.

Ultimately, says Thorne, “The Porter” is “a story of black ambition” and aims to be ambitious.

“We want you to feel the humanity of the characters, we want you to feel their joy, because you have to fight oppression with the will to do what you have to do but also with laughter.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 18, 2022.

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