THE PORTER premiering Monday (February 21) at 9 pm on CBC TV and streaming on CBC Gem. New episodes weekly through April 11.
The Porter is a new CBC series dramatizing the movement by railroad porters on either side of the Canada/U.S. border to organize for better working conditions in the early 1920s, which resulted in the first Black union. Mostly, the show is about the path to social justice for its idealistic characters, which is paved with tragedies, betrayals and setbacks. But it makes room for Black joy, and that feels important.
On a Zoom call before she and co-star Ronnie Rowe Jr. head off to NOW’s photo shoot, Mouna Traoré is telling me about the release she felt while shooting one of the show’s musical numbers – a jazzy dance moment in the Black-owned club where all the characters spend a little time, Boardwalk Empire-style – and it’s clear the scene meant as much to her as it did to her character.
“It was towards the end of our shooting schedule,” she says. “There was so much energy, aliveness, light, love. It was the first time in a long time we’d been able to congregate in such a large number, and be able to dance and sing and really just celebrate and enjoy ourselves.”
Moments like that, which are strung through The Porter’s eight episodes, declare the show to be something different from the heavier projects that tend to arrive in Black History Month. Created by actors Arnold Pinnock and Bruce Ramsay, who both appear in the series in key roles, developed by veteran writer/producers Annmarie Morais (Killjoys), Marsha Greene (Mary Kills People) and Aubrey Nealon (Cardinal) and directed by executive producers Charles Officer and RT Thorne, The Porter aims for a different, less oppressive tone.
“So very often when we see these stories, [they’re] always harping on the trauma,” says Rowe. “And I’m not trying to see that anymore, and I think a lot of people are tired of it. This is a new take on these kind of stories.”
The Porter has its share of standoffs and showdowns, but it’s livelier and looser around the edges, its key characters reflecting the optimism of a world recovering from the dual devastations of World War I and the flu pandemic that followed. Which, in turn, made it awfully easy for the actors to plug into the story from the vantage point of 2021.
Paranoia and desperation of the pandemic
“Some of these characters have gone through war, or [experienced] really intense racial discrimination and violence,” Traoré says. “Everybody has their own backstory, and the paranoia and the sense of desperation and liberation coming out of a pandemic like we experienced last summer.”
Traoré and Rowe co-starred in the short-lived BET series In Contempt a few years back; it was a slick legal drama about crusading New York lawyers. Since then, they’ve both been working steadily: Traoré’s TV credits include Condor, The Umbrella Academy and Murdoch Mysteries, while Rowe has spent four seasons on Star Trek: Discovery as a member of the bridge crew, chasing more active work in shows like Pretty Hard Cases and movies like Officer’s Akilla’s Escape – which landed him a Canadian Screen Award nomination last year as best supporting actor.
The Porter casts them as Marlene Massey and Zeke Garrett, two people pushing for progress in a world that would rather they didn’t. Marlene, a Black Cross nurse, wants to open a clinic in her underserved Montreal neighbourhood of Sainte-Antoine; Zeke, a sleeping-car porter, wants to unionize his co-workers so they can negotiate for safer working conditions.
Both Marlene’s and Zeke’s goals are complicated, in one way or another, by Marlene’s husband Junior (Aml Ameen), who’s using his position as a porter to run whisky and numbers for gangsters in Chicago. But even when things get bleak, our heroes insist on taking the high road.
“Zeke and Marlene are really trying to work within structures that have certain boundaries,” Traoré says, “and trying to see how they can challenge those boundaries to get more of what they want. But it’s never really for themselves. It’s for the greater good, it’s for the community, it’s for their family, it’s for their friends. And that’s why it’s so important.”
Emulating Martin Luther King Jr.
Rowe had a very personal reason to get on board: “I always wanted to play a character that emulated Martin Luther King,” he says. “And I very much think that Zeke is that thing I was asking for. When you see [a role] that is that palpable, and shows you not just as a Black man, but as an intellect, as a leader – not a colour, but a character – those kind of opportunities don’t come all the time. And now we have these very palpable characters – all different shades, all different backgrounds – telling this Black story. And more than anything, the understanding was being of service to the ones that came before us.”
Both actors see the project as part of a commitment to telling stories they find meaningful. Traoré knows exactly when she decided to start doing that: “I was in my favourite Black bookstore in Los Angeles,” she says, “and I was looking at the shelves and I said, ‘I want my resumé to look like this.’ And I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make those choices that bring me closer and closer to my goal of working on projects that tell Black stories that have meaning, that feel connected to me.”
“I think it’s important, as actors, to be very selective – when you have the opportunity,” Rowe allows. “I’ve been very, very blessed to be able to play some very thought-provoking, maybe not-so-normal characters – but those are the ones I want to play. Like, Black Cop was a gift. I think Zeke is a gift. And yeah, those are the stories I want to tell. I want people to be dropped into a time that they don’t know, and feel what these people went through.”
“I think most of our castmates feel similarly,” Traoré says, explaining that she’s never worked on a project where so many of the actors shared key qualities with their characters. “There is something in Ronnie that is so Zeke. There’s something in Aml that is so Junior, there’s so much in me that is so Marlene… there’s no way that any of us could have played any other character. I feel like the hand of the universe is just underneath this project, slowly supporting it and bringing it up.”
“Arnold Pinnock put, what, like 13 years of his life into this thing?” Rowe says. “That tells you how invested he was, and it’s trickled into the rest of us because honestly, his heart was all over this thing. And when someone is that invested? You’re not going to be part of it if you don’t even come near to matching that energy and passion.”
“I can’t believe we’re doing this”
“I think Arnold cried the first time I auditioned,” Traoré recalls, “We had a very intense moment where we were like, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ There are so few opportunities, as a Black Canadian, to tell stories that are specific to our experience. And it was one of those full-circle moments where we were just across from each other – and I didn’t know Arnold at the time, I actually didn’t even know that he was the writer/creator – but I could see how moving the experience was for him. And it moved me, and I think each of us had our own experience like that.”
As gratifying as making The Porter was for both actors, not every project is as positive. We’re speaking the day after ACTRA announced it was filing grievances against two production associations over what president Eleanor Noble described to CBC News as “systemic discrimination on hair and makeup.” The argument is that BIPOC performers are regularly paired with hairstylists and makeup artists who are unprepared to handle their hair or skin tones.
I have to ask. And both Traoré and Rowe nod. They’ve been there.
“On the productions that have had predominantly Black casts or creative teams, it hasn’t been so much of an issue,” Traoré says, “but on pretty much everything else, it has. Unfortunately, I don’t think the needs of Black performers are often considered when they’re hiring hair and makeup – and I think that for many different reasons, they’re not prioritized. It’s really unfortunate because I think as Black performers, we deserve to go on camera feeling our best, and very often it means us bringing our own hair and makeup; having to step up and do it ourselves.”
“I’ve learned how to very efficiently cut my own hair,” Rowe says. “Because there’s been times my facial hair has got butchered and I’m just not going to put it in somebody else’s hands. This is going to be [on film] forever. So I had to actually become very adept at doing my own thing because I knew I couldn’t rely on the people on set to do for me at times.”
Things ran more smoothly on The Porter, at least.
“We had a barber on set that was used to cutting a Black person’s hair,” Rowe says. “You know, there’s an artistry to it, like everything… and to neglect that is unfortunate.”
“And I had a fantastic makeup artist named Krista [Hann],” Traoré says, “who has so much experience with Black makeup. I felt like I could fully relax, like I was in good hands. And that’s not always the case. Krista is, in fact, a white woman, but her experience has been predominantly with Black talent, so she is incredible. I was astounded by her work and really, really, really grateful to have her.”
Representation and reclamation
It’s just more evidence of the show finding the right people, Traoré says, pointing out that The Porter isn’t just about on-screen representation but reclamation. “Everybody involved in this project had a really strong sense of not only how important it was in terms of making history, but also telling history,” she says. “There are Black Canadians who have never seen themselves in railway museums. They’ve never seen themselves represented on screen, they’ve never seen their contributions validated. It’s going to be hugely impactful for people who have family members who were porters, family members, who were Black Cross nurses, family members who were part of creating the Black community in Canada.
“And the statement the show makes by having an all-Black creative team, by having an incredible amount of diversity on both sides of the camera – we’re making a point of saying, ‘we can do this. The only thing that stopped us before is just opportunity. Look at what we’ve done.’”
Photographed at the Toronto Railway Museum, which is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday from noon to 5 pm.
Arnold Pinnock, Annmarie Morais, Marsha Greene, Charles Officer and RT Thorne discuss the process of developing and making The Porter with Norm Wilner on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday.