The Porter (2022)
When episode one of The Porter crackles, bumps, and buzzes onto the screen it is to take us inside of a segregated Jazz club where the owner, musicians, and clientele are black and the dirty police officers extorting and harassing the black revellers, are white.
Welcome to Montreal in the 1920’s! But once the police exit, the music resumes along with the colourful swinging tassels and skirts enveloping the beautiful brown bodies that move, spin, and swirl rhythmically to the creolized African beats of Jazz.
Right off the bat, the show reveals a stunning attention to detail. From the costumes adorning the Jazz club dancers to the clean and freshly pressed uniforms worn by the handsome black male porters, the production team clearly did their homework. The show is visually arresting and often beautiful, and a part of that beauty is the way the show captures the complex diversity of Black Canada.
This complexity includes outlooks, aspirations, complexions, ethnicities, and accents. Diversity is also captured in an adroit use of music. When we first see the assembled porters walking together with pride down St. Antoine Street on their way to the train station, the song that plays is the Jamaican reggae superstars Toots and the Maytals “Pomps and Pride” (1973). Even though this Jamaican mega hit would come some 50 years later, the song is the perfect accompaniment for the moment as the handsome and poised men walk in stride through a community that sees and values them for their contributions and sacrifices. As we soon see, this is not so at the train station or on the trains.
One of the first characters we get to know, Junior Massey (played by Amal Ameen), is a black man with a Caribbean accent who happens to be a loving husband and father, a porter, and a smuggler of alcohol into the USA (remember prohibition?). The women aren’t left out either, as we see Junior’s wife Marlene (played by Mouna Traoré) serving her community through her work with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
The show also engages with the complexities, absurdities, and abuses of home-grown Canadian racism, the often-lethal stakes for black people and the ways that resistance often meant weaponizing white people’s absurd racial expectations against them.
Immediately, we are shown how Junior manages to smuggle his contraband across the Canada-USA border; mainly by infiltrating the luxury train cabins of unsuspecting white travelers and planting the bottles in their suitcases where, due to their race and status, their luggage is not subjected to searches by US border officials.
As for the lethal stakes, when a trio of porters are ordered to load the ice into the train – the pre-air conditioning technology for the first-class travelers – they find it impossible to protest in the face of the menacing racist tactics of their white supervisor who refuses to get three white labourers to create the appropriate six-man team for the physically challenging and dangerous job. The result, the young, promising, and ambitious Henry – he wanted to study for the engineer’s test – plummets off the roof of the train to his death.
The Porter grips you from the first moments and makes you want to know more about the characters, their lives, their dreams, and their struggles. This eight-episode TV drama is one of the first Canadian drama series with a mainly black cast. (Shame on Canada that such a thing could be true in 2022.) But it won’t be the last!