Set in the Roaring Twenties, CBC’s newest series with BET+ is not only visually stunning, but also making big strides in Black storytelling. We think it’s about time, don’t you?
The Porter takes place in St. Antoine, Montreal, once known as the Harlem of the North. The show explores how Black railway workers joined together to form the first Black union, but goes so much deeper than that. Porters were exclusively Black men who worked on the sleeping cars on trains. This was one of the few jobs that Black men were able to get, and the position was a respected one and a source of pride in the community.
Created by CBC and BET+, this original series has a Black-led creative team and some serious Canadian star power. The Porter features strong female leads, each with their own unique story. We chatted with two of the Canadian actresses, Mouna Traoré and Olunike Adeliyi, about their roles.
Traoré plays Marlene, a nurse who is part of the newly formed Black Cross Nurses—educated women who would teach the community about health care, support mothers during childbirth and more. “We have yet to hear the story of Black Canadian communities like St. Antoine, to hear about organizations that they created and also the society and culture that was unique to Black Canadians, not only in Montreal but throughout Canada,” she explains. “This is the first representation that I’ve seen of the many facets of Black Canadians and their contributions to Canadian society as a whole.”
Adeliyi, who plays Miss Queenie, agrees. “A lot of Canadian history isn’t widely known. I study African studies and African American studies. And all I want to do is to study Black Canadian studies, but it’s not available. For some reason, it’s not understood that Black Canadians have been a part of the fabric and building of Canada.” Her character, she adds, is a crime boss inspired by the real-life Numbers Queen of Harlem. Queenie has a few tricks up her sleeve, including speaking several languages and being an accomplished pianist. Mysterious and ruthless, she is creating her queendom by any means necessary.
“Black women have always been the boss of their empire. So why not on screen?” Playing a character with multiple skills was a challenge that Adeliyi was up for. She finds similarities in their personalities: “We share a lot of bold conviction and we definitely know how to speak our mind. We know how to take up space, especially for injustices. We both work for the good of the community.”
Lucy is another pivotal character in The Porter. She’s a dancer and performer with big dreams. Although talented, she is passed over for leading roles in favour of dancers with a lighter skin tone. Colourism isn’t often spoken about in the entertainment or beauty world but, unfortunately, remains an issue today. In fact, it’s something that Traoré has experienced firsthand, both on set and in real life.
“I have been told I’m too hard to light, and I’ve been told that I would be more attractive if my skin wasn’t so dark. None of which is true! I’m so grateful that The Porter tackles the issue of colourism. It’s frustrating that it still plays such a significant factor in our society. Accepting the beauty of my blackness and developing a sense of self-love and my own standard of beauty is essential to my survival in this industry and the world,” she adds.
Catch The Porter on CBC and CBC Gem. —Amanda Nunes