Today we’re chatting with Charles about his work and his new CBC and BET+ show The Porter, which depicts the history of the first Black-led labour union in 1925 and is already making history for becoming Canada’s biggest Black-led television production.
Tell us how you became involved with The Porter as a Director and Executive Producer.
Charles Officer: Back in 2010, the original series creators Arnold Pinnock and Bruce Ramsay shared their idea about Black Sleeping Car Porters in the 20s. I had just completed a documentary film about our great Canadian sprinter Harry Jerome, Mighty Jerome, whose father was a Porter. I was also working on a project about Africville where the protagonist’s father is a Porter as well. So naturally, I was encouraged to hear that Arnold and Bruce were digging deeper into the Porter story. Over the years that followed, Arnold was instrumental in keeping me peripherally involved as the project developed. In 2019, real engagement with Sienna Films began about directing and participating in the series in a significant way. When I read the first two scripts, I was immediately engaged and excited and began dreaming about making the invisible, visible. The official greenlight came from CBC and BET+ in the spring of 2020 and off went.
Why do you feel it’s important to tell this particular story in Canadian history?
CO: Personally, it was important to me to tell this story because it is a vital piece of Canadian history that is missing. The Black experience is seldom represented in the canon of television and cinema in this country. For this very reason, it has been my mission to change that. It is important that we claim our narrative, our place and our lineage in the stories we tell. This one is in the spirit of honouring our ancestors.
What might people not know about Black Porters in Canada?
CO: What people don’t know about the Porters is that they were at the inception of the Civil Rights movement. It was post-World War One when Porters sparked a revolution in labour by unionizing Black workers and influencing policy. Porters are the OG’s of change agents and the community was the soul of the movement.
The Porter is already making history for becoming Canada’s biggest Black-led television production. Describe how it felt to collaborate with Canada’s first all-Black writer’s room.
CO: Simply said, it was liberating to work in the television medium with an all-Black writing team. Creatively there was a shorthand that didn’t require “black-splaining” between us. It was wonderful to have diverse voices in the room that represented our vast diaspora. For me, it was a true cultural representation of Canadian creativity.
The Porter is set in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood of Montreal, which was once called “the Harlem of the North”. How did you work with the Locations team to find shooting locations that would emulate and pay tribute to this area’s history?
CO: We had a strong Locations team headed by DGC Ontario Location Manager Steve Watson, along with an amazing Design team led by Production Designer Rejean Labrie. We searched high and low throughout the city (Winnipeg, Manitoba) to find locations we could re-imagine, repurpose and re-dress to maximize our production needs. We needed to recreate 1920s Montreal, Chicago, New York, and a few places between. We collected tons of research and image references from the era and did our best to match them with practical locations we found. It was a detailed and involved collaboration that I think resulted in a fresh visual language for the series.
For more on The Porter, check out our interview with Director and Executive Producer R.T. Thorne.
Watch The Porter on CBC and CBC Gem Mondays at 9 PM.