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A series about porters and Black-Canadian history set in Montreal's Little Burgundy is coming to CBC and BET+
A CBC series about Black porters and Montreal’s jazz hub Little Burgundy community is set to become Canada’s biggest Black-led television production.
The eight-part series digging into Black Canadian history will go into production in 2021 under the working title The Porter.
The period piece takes place after the First World War in Little Burgundy, which was dubbed “Harlem of the North.” It follows two former soldiers who find work as railway porters, which was one of the few jobs available to Black men at the time. They worked long hours and endured abusive treatment for scant pay. That led to a civil rights fight across Canada and the U.S., and the creation of a union: the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
The story of Black porters is the subject of Cecil Foster’s 2019 book They Call Me George. Foster and historian Saje Mathieu are consultants on The Porter.
The series, which also takes place in Chicago and Detroit, is scheduled to begin shooting in 2021. It will air on CBC and stream on CBC Gem in Canada and BET+ in the U.S. The networks previously joined forces on Clement Virgo and Damon D’Oliveira’s The Book Of Negroes.
An entirely Black-Canadian creative team is making The Porter. The directors and executive producers are Charles Officer (The Skin We’re In, Akilla’s Escape) and R.T. Thorne (Utopia Falls). The writers and showrunners are Annmarie Morais (Killjoys, Ransom, American Soul) and Marsha Greene (Private Eyes, Ten Days In The Valley, Mary Kills People). They put together Canada’s first all-Black writers room, which includes Morais, Greene, Thorne, Andrew Burrows-Trotman, Priscilla White and story editor Andrea Scott.
“This is not only a television series,” Officer says. “This is part of our revolution.”
He and his core team of Thorne, Morais and Greene spoke exclusively to NOW in October about the collaboration.
“This is how we come together at this particular moment with all of our experiences,” Officer continues, adding that the work they’ve put in for years, over various projects, has finally led to this moment.
“It’s by the grace of the spirits we’re in this position right now to do this.”
Officer describes the history behind Little Burgundy (La Petite-Bourgogne) as the “Harlem story” for Black-Canadians. The area was a thriving community and jazz mecca borne from access to the railways. Americans found refuge from prohibition. The Black population found employment on the trains. That cultural intersection became a bustling home to an early diaspora of Black Canadians, African-Americans and West Indians.
“This is our renaissance,” says Officer. “This is a special time and a special place that affected the country in so many ways.”
“They were a part of this first great network across North America,” adds Thorne. He describes how this generation, only a few removed from slavery, was out to claim freedom and the railway facilitated that movement. He compares its impact to the internet: Railroads brought modernization, connecting people, ideas, concepts, business and culture.
“[The porters] were able to utilize that network and spread some of their ideas and learn, and take that information back into their communities,” Thorne adds.
Greene explains the series was initially focused on the Black porters, railways and unionization, but expanded to encompass the Black community surrounding the porters. The show will follow four leads who have various ambitions while fighting for voice and agency.
There’s the two former soldiers who become porters, Junior and Zeke. They fight for their rights on the railroads in different ways. Zeke pushes to unite the porters. Junior games a system that has cheated him all his life.
And opposite them is a sisterhood. Junior’s wife, Marlene, is the backbone of the community in Little Burgundy. While she fights gender discrimination, Marlene crosses paths with Lucy, a singer in Little Burgundy’s nightlife whose career is hindered by colourism.
“We touch every corner,” says Morais, adding that the characters’ struggles are echoed in the issues people face today. “The struggles within ourselves, the struggles beyond ourselves and the struggles of the world at large.”
“It’s the gamut of who we are,” adds Officer. He and Thorne point out that this is not another show about Black subjugation, which historical dramas tend to focus on. Instead, The Porter is about how Black people handle the shit thrown their way and fight for integrity and autonomy. “They take different roads to their own liberation.”
The team describes The Porter’s characters as four “dreamers” who each strive for something personally while organizing and uniting as a community. It’s not lost on Morais, Greene, Officer and Thorne that the four of them are also dreamers uniting to take on something big.
“All of our individual journeys and the way that we had to hustle are exactly a mirror of the characters and world we are presenting,” says Officer. “Not without struggle, not without joy, not without pain, not without fighting. But we’re here now.”
“Sometimes you just have to let time and circumstance run its course to get the right team,” says Morais, introducing The Porter’s decade-long journey to this moment.
The Porter began with actors Arnold Pinnock and Bruce Ramsay. They conceived the project as a movie and wrote its original iteration in 2010. Over the next several years, the project lingered, was redeveloped into a series, found backing from Jennifer Kawaja and Julia Sereny at Sienna Films and even got a green light from CBC two years ago. But after that CBC green light, Sienna Films couldn’t get the remaining funding to get the pricey period piece off the ground.
Morais and Greene, who were part of the original writers room, started redeveloping the series, eventually becoming its showrunners. Officer and Thorne signed on as exec producers and directors.
Officer says the new all-Black team didn’t gain confidence from some quarters. There were decision-makers who wanted to add a white showrunner or a white director from Anne With An E into the mix, suggesting this team wasn’t ready.
“This is not a country that rewards what people are worth,” says Thorne. “In terms of its broadcasters and funding agencies, it’s a country that is gun shy and likes to rely on who they know. And who they know is not us.”
“It’s taken a lot of time for Black creators to break through and get to the level where we’re allowed to tell our stories,” adds Greene.
“We all spent a lot of years working and doing our own thing separately to get to this moment where we’re all poised and ready to be showrunners and executive producers,” says Morais. “We really feel like we are the people to tell this story.”
Despite doubts from different corners of the industry, The Porter team had Sienna’s backing. And the company, prioritizing authenticity of voice, didn’t capitulate.
Sienna also produced Trickster, the CBC Indigenous series that’s about to air in the U.S. on The CW. Thorne remembers learning about Trickster the first time he met Kawaja. She was talking about how the production was filling out key crew positions with Indigenous talent. And when they couldn’t find that talent for those roles, they built paid internships into their budget to develop that talent. That program will be expanded on the second season of Trickster with additional funding from CBC.
“That’s not a producer decision,” says Thorne, describing his first impressions of Kawaja. “That’s an activist decision.”
Thorne continues: “It takes individuals like [Kawaja and Sereny] to recognize people who have the talent and have done the work. And to put them in a position, and back them against a broadcaster who may be like, ‘I don’t knoooow.’”
More than a decade since Pinnock and Ramsay conceived The Porter, the series secured the necessary financing and got the go-ahead to go into production – a week after George Floyd was murdered. Who can say if the timing was reactionary or coincidence? Does the fact that the project was already green lit before shield The Porter from assumptions that it exists because of post-Floyd white guilt?
“We were conscious of how these things could be perceived,” says Thorne, offering one reason why they kept the project quiet until now. Officer and Thorne say they put a little distance between the summer’s racial reckoning and subsequent fallout in the media and their announcement.
They’re very aware that broadcasters and funders will step up, so to speak, when a cultural moment puts institutions on the stand. And they’re also aware how that narrative can hijack Black stories.
Black projects carry the burden of the narratives we impose on them. Media like us can make it seem like Black stories are made to reflect or react to a moment; our default mode suggests that they must have some special reason to exist. Thorne and Officer don’t deny that narrative, but they don’t necessarily subscribe to it either.
“This happened because the project is important,” says Thorne. “And the team is important.”
“The net has been cast extremely wide,” says Thorne, when I ask about casting. He and Officer are chuckling, as if they have names in mind but they certainly aren’t telling me. All I can gather from the smug look on their faces over Zoom is that who they have in mind clearly has them excited.
“People were like, ‘Oh it’s going to be tough,’” Thorne adds, relaying warnings from the industry that Canada is lacking Black talent and casting a Black project this size will be a challenge. He puts on an “as if” face to sum up his thoughts, adding that he heard the same thing when searching for the multicultural cast of Utopia Falls.
“We just went across the country and there’s unbelievable talent here,” says Officer.
“We now have a database that we should share with every muthafuckin’ broadcaster in the country. Anyone who is looking for Black actors and saying they can’t find somebody, well, here you have it.”