The Porter

The Porter Review

As is the case with most of the Black history in Canada, the significance of the Black sleeping car porters is not as well known as it should be. One of the few respectable jobs Black men could get after World War I, the porters maintained a sense of dignity while enduring racism, long hours, poor wages, and unsafe working conditions as they tended to the needs of passengers. The importance of the porters goes well past the billowing smoke of the trains on the railway. If it were not for the creation of the Order of Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP), the first Black led labour union in North America, which fought for workers rights and against immigration discrimination, Canada would not be the multicultural mosaic it prides itself on being today.

Inspired by the events that led to the creation of the OSCP, the new CBC and BET+ original series The Porter breathes thrilling new life into a history that laid dormant for far too long. From its opening moments, the series announces itself as something different. It is not simply a tale of hardship, but one of Black joy and liberation as well. Just as Boardwalk Empire used the prohibition era to tell a grand tale of crime, politics and corruption, The Porter offers a sweeping exploration of a post-war Black diaspora.

Set in the heart of the Black community of St. Antoine, Montreal in 1921, the series follows four characters who each find themselves on a journey to break the oppressive chains that shackle them. Best friends and former World War I soldier, Junior Massey (Aml Ameen) and Zeke Garrett (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) are well respected by their community and their fellow sleeping car porters. Though both men are exceptional at their jobs, they cannot hide the growing frustration they feel working in a system that treats them as if they are invisible in plain sight.

They reach their breaking point when their friend dies on the job, in an accident that could have been avoided had proper staffing been put in place, and the deceased’s family is coldly invoiced for the cost of the uniform. For Junior, this revelation pushes him further down the rabbit hole of the world of bootlegging. Once a side hustle, Junior believes it is time to up his game and make real “grown-up money.” However, his ambitions take a turn when he unexpectedly finds himself crossing paths with a ruthless Chicago crime boss, Miss Queenie (Olunike Adeliyi).


While Junior manoeuvres around the chess board to ensure his regular life is not checkmated by his underworld ties, Zeke sets the table for his own strategic game. Zeke believes that the best way to improve working conditions for the sleeping car porters is to force change at the top. However, when the head of the Cross Continental Railway (CCR), William Edwards (Paul Essiembre), shows no desire to change, and existing railway unions refuse to allow Black membership, Zeke decides to forge a pathway that could lead to the porters starting their own union.

Taking matters into one’s own hands is something that both Marlene Massey (Mouna Traoré), Junior’s wife, and Lucy Conrad (Loren Lott) have no choice but to do as well. A Black Cross Nurse, which is an offshoot of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), Marlene finds it increasingly difficult to provide medical aid to her community due to bureaucracy and sexism within the organization’s leadership. Refusing to let her superiors get the best of her, Marlene starts to get in touch with her true self when she begins to disobey protocol to ensure that those in the neighbourhood, including brothel worker Fay (Alfre Woodward), get the care they need.

Knowing one’s capabilities is something Lucy has no issue with. In her mind she is a star just waiting for the perfect stage to shine. Working as both a maid alongside her mother, and a backline dancer at Club Stardust, she is not shy about her ambitions. Unfortunately, the darkness of her skin seems to lock more doors than they open in the world of entertainment. Complicating Lucy’s quest of stardom further is her budding relationship with Franklin Edwards (Luke Bilyk), the son of the CCR head.

Skillfully navigating various topics ranging from colorism to politics to classism, The Porter is a series that may take place in the 1920s but feels extremely relevant today. Part of what makes the show so engaging is that the world it creates feels fully lived in. The multifaceted nature of the Black experience is reflected in the show’s complex characters and compelling story arcs.


In the first two episodes that were provided to critics, one can see how the early threads of drama will be woven into a fascinating and intricate quilt. It quickly becomes clear that The Porter is as much a tale of liberation, both professionally and personally, as it is a reflection on the systems that were designed to hold certain people down.

The desire to take control of one’s own narrative can be felt in every aspect of the show. Anchored by a wealth of Black talent in front of and behind the camera, the ensemble cast is exceptionally good across the board, the show avoids wading in the pool of trauma. Realizing that there are slew of diverse stories to tell within the St. Antoine community, the show finds inspiration in those who laid the groundwork for generations to build upon. The Porter is a refreshing and invigorating series that finds rich fruit in the seeds of the past.

The Porter premieres in Canada on Monday, February 21, CBC TV, 9 PM / 9:30 PM in Newfoundland; and streams on CBC Gem.