“Pressure Makes Diamonds” — How The Creators Of The Porter, Canada’s Biggest Black-Led TV Series, Are Handling The Hype
The Blackest creative team north of the border talks channelling their ancestors and facing high expectations to pull off the triumphant new series about Black life in 1920s Montreal.
In 2019, I asked a simple question: Why Is Canadian Television So White? It was after the purported “golden age” of Canadian TV, where white-run shows were garnering international acclaim and unprecedented U.S. mainstream attention, and right before the “racial reckoning” of 2020, when suddenly the world seemed to be waking up to the fact that creators of color exist and that they should be afforded to same opportunities as their white counterparts to thrive in this industry. At the time, I suggested we may be years away from a Black TV renaissance in Canada — one similar to the progress made stateside. Aside from a couple of token exceptions, there was still a severe lack of Black representation in front of, and especially behind, the camera. The future looked bleak.
Enter: The Porter. When news first broke in December 2020 that the CBC/ BET co-production would be Canada’s biggest Black-led TV series with majority Black talent onscreen and in the writers’ room, it felt like a long overdue course correction for the decades of drought we’d seen when it came to Black talent on Canadian TV. Not only that, the premise of the show (premiering today on BET+) was refreshing — set in 1920s Montreal and Chicago, the eight-episode series tells the story of the Black train porters and the community surrounding them as they live, hustle, love, dream, work, and form North America’s first Black workers’ union. We’re used to a sanitized version of Black Canadian history, with us in Canada positioned as the heroes of the Underground Railroad in opposition to America’s race problem (an ‘at least we’re not as bad as them!’ mentality), without the nuance and depth of the real stories of how Black workers shaped Canada and the U.S., and the relentless racism they faced along the way. We’re not used to a show that prioritizes the interior lives — the joy, pain and everything in between — of Black people in Canada, let alone one actually made by Black Canadian people (what a concept!). In the midst of cries for Black representation in a persistently lily white Canadian TV landscape, The Porter, even just in theory, felt like it was simultaneously right on time and ahead of its time.
Meet the A-Team of The Porter
In reality, the series was 12 years in the making. “It has been a long journey,” Arnold Pinnock, The Porter co-creator and executive producer who also plays train porter Glenford on the show, tells Unbothered over Zoom. “[The idea] originated for me from the desire of wanting to know about Black Canadian history. I'm an immigrant — my parents are from Jamaica via England to [Canada], and we just wanted to know about it, because we sure as heck didn't see it in the school system. Didn't see it in the news. Didn't see it in books. Didn't see it in TV shows.” At a time when the importance of teaching accurate Black history is under constant attack, a story like The Porter, which fictionalizes very real events, is urgent and necessary. The experiences of Junior (Aml Ameen of Sense8 and Boxing Day), an unapologetic disruptor who fights fiercely for his family in legal and not-so-legal ways, and Zeke (Star Trek: Discovery star Ronnie Rowe Jr.), a more by-the-book revolutionary who is fighting the system through forming a union, are equally important. Both porters have the same goal — liberation — which they approach in different ways. The nuance of the non-monolithic paths to freedom Black people took could only be articulated by people who truly get it. This is the history that is seldom taught and hardly seen onscreen.
We’re not used to a show that prioritizes the interior lives — the joy, pain and everything in between — of Black people in Canadian history, let alone one actually made by Black Canadian people (what a concept!).
As Pinnock is listing off the things we don’t see on Canadian TV shows, he’s flanked in our Zoom meeting by the other producers, writers and creators who brought The Porter to life. Charles Officer and R.T. Thorne are co-executive producers and directors on the series, bringing their decades of experience in Canadian film and TV to the production which pours out of every vibrant frame. And there’s co-executive producers and writers Marsha Greene (known best for Mary Kills People) and Annmarie Morais (writer of How She Move and producer of Killjoys), two of the women on the creative team who are responsible for the show’s stellar writing, and its ambitious, complex portrayals of Marlene (Mouna Traoré) and Lucy (Loren Lott), the female lead characters, who have their own interior lives and lofty ambitions aside from the men of the series. In other hands, Marlene and Lucy may have faded into the background to make way for Zeke and Junior to shine. In this story, all four leads get their moments in the spotlight — and so do supporting powerhouses Alfre Woodard as Fay and Olunike Adeliyi as Queenie. “When history has a heartbeat, it matters,” Morais says. “As a female show writer you can't write yourself out of the picture and we know that we are such a big part of that story. These men were gone for days and weeks at a time. And so, who was there? The world didn't just stop when they left.”
It’s not lost on me that the scene unfolding in front of me — five Black creators being interviewed by a Black writer for their Black-ass TV show — is not only a rare sight in any entertainment industry, but it would’ve seemed impossible a couple of years ago in Canada specifically. And not because the talent hasn’t always been there. But because that talent has faced barriers beyond their control that halted productions before they began, stalled careers before they took off, and stunted ideas before they were dared to be dreamed. Those barriers, Officer (Akilla’s Escape) says, are due in large part to the gatekeepers of TV. “The [reason] there has been such little advancement over many years is because individuals have to be approved by a network executive to work on a show, whether it's to write, produce, direct, whatever. And that approval process has not [looked] at how Black folks, Asian folks, brown people, etc, are actually advancing in this industry. The conversation has only shifted in the last couple of years, but the problem has been here for a long time,” he says. “So hopefully, the ground this show can break, is [to prove] there is a series of us that are approvable, and that are chomping, ready to go, and capable of doing this work.”
The competence of these creators in particular shouldn’t be up for debate. The confirmation is in each of their illustrious resumes but also onscreen. We’re only two episodes in but so far, The Porter is really, really good — on every level, from the passionate performances, flawless 1920s costume design, to the meticulous direction and inspired writing. “I'm going to say it, [because] they won't, but we brought together the A-team,” Pinnock says. I joke that he’s assembled the Avengers of Black Canadian TV. With that in mind, the impressive result shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is a relief.
We're not making [the series] for a bunch of executives who hopefully will fund our next project. We know they'll fund our project if we impress ourselves and if we impress our community.”
r.t. thorne, director and producer
The Pressure of Being ‘The First’
With any new series, pressure is inevitable. With Canada’s largest Black-led series, the first of its kind, the expectations are high — unfairly so. When you’re the first, the antiquated notion is that if you fail, there won’t be a second. The future of Black Canadian television is in your hands. No big deal. Of course, that thinking just props up the inequities ingrained in an already unjust system and negates the other Black Canadian shows already on the go or on the way (digital series like Next Stop, Revenge Of The Black Best Friend), but we know that a show of this magnitude comes with a specific set of responsibilities. And while each of the creators feels that weight, they refuse to buckle under it. “Pressure makes diamonds!” Thorne, prolific music video director and creator of Utopia Falls, smiles defiantly. He repeats the mantra over and over. “We are our own competition. We're not trying to make this story for anybody else. We're trying to make it for us, for our people, for a young me,” Thorne says. “We're not making it for a bunch of executives who hopefully will fund our next project. We know they'll fund our project if we impress ourselves and if we impress our community.”
Officer agrees, and balks at the designation of being the ‘first.’ “I really don't like to play upon [the fact that] we're the ‘first Black…’ We get it. I know. And it's not something that I like to celebrate, because why am I the first? I wish someone else had been so I can enjoy [their work] and it would've inspired me to do something else,” he says. Pinnock chimes in. “Also, think of the Sudz Sutherlands of the world, the Jennifer Holnesses, the Clement Virgos, we are standing on their shoulders. No matter how long it's taken to get this done, they were people who were before us. And there's so many other names that I'm not even mentioning that have paved the way for us. It's not a matter of us being the first, it's more like we are the continuation of them, and we really hope someone else is the continuation of us.”
The next generation is referred to a lot by the creative team behind The Porter. Paving a clearer path for those coming up behind them, and doing right by their community were the priorities. “At the end of the day, you have to kill the noise. I'm making this for my nieces, my nephews, my mom, the narrowest of audiences. [The pressure] can't be at the forefront of this process or else I'll just collapse,” Officer says. “At the same time, call it my defense mechanisms or my lack of trust in an industry that hasn't been so welcoming to us, but [I know] that there are individuals who may not want us to succeed. They’ll say ‘Look at that Black project’... which prevents me from ever thinking about failing.”
The definition of that success is more internal than external, according to Greene. “While we were in the writers’ room [for The Porter],I May Destroy Youwas out. And it wasn't necessarily about [Michaela Coel] being the first Black woman to do whatever it may have been, it was that the show was so excellent. It was amazing that this excellent, excellent work came from a Black woman and came in part from her own experience. You see her culture. So I think what was really in my mind was really just to make excellent, excellent work, and then for us be like, ‘Yes, and we did that!’"
[I know] that there are individuals who may not want us to succeed. They’ll say ‘Look at that Black project’... which prevents me from ever thinking about failing.”
charles officer, director and producer
Finding Joy Amidst The Struggle
It makes sense that the writers were finding inspiration in Coel’s I May Destroy You because one of the things the HBO show did best was juggle devastation with delight, grief alongside glee. The goal for The Porter was also to tow the line between conflicting emotions. “The Black experience is one of discrimination and oppression in general, across the board, in our lives, our parents' lives, and our ancestors' lives,” Thorne says. “But, we don't feel that as heavily, because we find our own joy. Marsha and Annmarie gave us an incredible foundation to make sure that our stories are not all about just what happens to Black people or what they're subjected to, but their inner lives in and around all that stuff.”
In the first episodes of The Porter, we’re faced with the reality of the oppression of Black people during that era, specifically the treatment of train porters, but we also get a glimpse into the sexy, stylized world Lucy takes us into — the ambitious, joyful, cutthroat society of a nightclub dancer. Her life is not without its perils (one of the most poignant scenes tackles colorism) but what The Porter does so well is balance all the contours of a full, vibrant Black life. And that was absolutely on purpose. “We were trying to find a way to not tell a story about just servitude or beaten down Black people,” Officer says. “We kept going back to the words ‘resilience’ and ‘resistance’ and ‘inspirational,’ so not to shy away and be polite about [racism], but to remember that this is part of the whole three dimensionality of life. We were channeling our ancestors because we are them and they are us. [Telling their stories] comes with all the joy and the pain, laughter and rain.” Greene adds: “We always tried to stay true to the spirit of the time and the spirit of the people. And so I just hope when people watch that that's what they get. They feel the spirit of those people.”
Yes, the fact that The Porter is actually very good is a relief for anyone rooting for everybody Black in Canadian TV, but its success shouldn’t lie in what comes next. After years of Black artists struggling to gain solid footing in this industry, and months of supposed allies promising to actually uplift Black talent with little follow-through, The Porter is a win, period, because its creators put community, and authenticity, first. And they did that in an industry that never prioritizes us. That is the diamond this team created out of pressure.
Morais sums it up like this: “What I want people to feel when they watch [The Porter] is that if they can look at the porters and look at this community and realize the giants that they took on and won, that they can look at whatever the giant is in their own life, in their own community, in their own struggle and even though a win is not going to be easy, it might not be quick, but it's worth the fight.”