R.T. Thorne On Bringing Black Canadian History To Life In The Porter

DGC Ontario’s R.T. Thorne is a Director and Writer who began his career directing internationally-recognized music videos for artists like Sean Paul, Kardinal Offishall, and Snoop Dogg. R.T. has since directed episodes of Degrassi, Backstage, the CW’s Kung Fu, and created Utopia Falls, an award-winning young adult Afrofuturistic science fiction series, in 2020.

Today we’re chatting with R.T. Thorne 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.

Director R.T. Thorne on the set of The Porter
Director R.T. Thorne on the set of The Porter

Tell us how you became involved with The Porter as a Director and Executive Producer.

Around the time that I had just sold Utopia Falls to Hulu, a series that was about the erasure of history and Black culture in the future, I was in LA and met up with Charles Officer. He told me about this incredible project that was focused on the little-known history of Black Sleeping Car Porters, so it was meant to be.

Why do you feel it’s important to tell this particular story in Canadian history?

I didn’t learn about any Black Canadians in my high school history classes at all. There are so many stories of Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized Canadians who have contributed to the makeup of our history that isn’t taught in schools, so it’s vital to ensure that people understand the contributions of these amazing Canadians on whose shoulders many of us stand on as we pursue our dreams and ambitions, because they paved the way for it.

What might people not know about Black porters in Canada?

I think a lot of people have a very one-dimensional view of Black train porters. They have a perspective that’s been perpetuated in many Hollywood films of these mild-mannered men who lived for nothing else but to serve white passengers. We wanted to make sure that audiences got to see how resilient, intelligent and ambitious these people were, how much swag they had, how funny and sexy they could be. We wanted to show the full breadth of their lives and experiences in the series.

Director R.T. Thorne on the set of The Porter
Director R.T. Thorne on the set of The Porter

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 writers room.

I’ve been in production for most of my adult life, often being the only Black face on the set or in a room, but it’s never prevented me from moving forward. I’ve always pushed through any kind of prejudice I’ve run into, but being in an all-Black writing room is one of those experiences where you sit back and find yourself understood. When you speak about certain experiences, instantly others are nodding in understanding. In fact, there’s often joy and reflection and additional building on your experiences with other common experiences because of the cultural understanding. And that’s just a welcoming place to contribute in. It makes you dig into your own past to find stories or feel free to debate things. It was a wonderful experience, one that I hope that many other writers of colour get to experience more and more in this country.

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?

We had an amazing Production Design team led by Rejean Labrie who really understood the turn of century architecture of Montreal. He provided incredible insight on how to transform these buildings into the facades and the structural elements that were common at that time in Montreal. Winnipeg is so well known for its incredible turn of the century architecture as well. So it was always exciting to see what magic Rejean and his team would bring to transform a neighbourhood or building.

For more on The Porter, check out our interview with Director and Executive Producer Charles Officer.

Watch The Porter on CBC and CBC Gem Mondays at 9 PM. 

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