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This article was published 12/6/2021 (224 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For better and worse, the eight-episode Winnipeg-lensed CBC drama The Porter, set mostly in the Montreal of the 1920s, will be filled with rich historical detail when it is scheduled to be broadcast next February.
The detail may be grim. The whole practice of hiring Black porters to serve on sleeping cars was conceived in a post-slavery world by train magnate George Pullman as a consolation to white passengers who yearned for the quality of eager servility in Black servants.
But it won’t all be grim — one of the main sets will be an early jazz club — and there is quirk too. In the 1920s, controversial Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey spread his own gospel with the formation of the United Negro Improvement Association, which saw a volunteer force of "Black Cross nurses."
"It was kind of a play on Red Cross nurses who went around the community and helped Black residents, giving them health information and sanitary information," says The Porter showrunner Marsha Greene, who promises that will be in the show.
That is the kind of detail embraced by the production, which employed its own historian as an adviser.
Sarah Jane (Saje) Mathieu, 50, is a professor in the History department at the University of Minnesota: Her book North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955 was an early inspiration for show producer-writer Arnold Pinnock, who reached out to the Ottawa-raised Mathieu a year ago.
"The project was moving forward in dramatic ways and he wanted to thank me for how my work played a part in helping him come up with this wonderful world that he created with the TV show," recalls Mathieu in a phone interview.
"I guess he thought it was a longshot," Mathieu says. "He asked if I would be even remotely interested in serving as a counsel to the show, as a historian."
The longshot turned out to be a good bet.
"I thought the show was so important that I cleared my desk in one fell swoop," Mathieu says. "I wanted to do my part to help them thrive and succeed."
The Porter, which is the biggest Black-led production ever in Canada, will air during Black History Month. It will also be broadcast in the U.S. on the cable network Black Entertainment Television (BET). The series is produced by Winnipeg-based Inferno Pictures Inc. and Sphere Media’s Toronto-based Sienna Films.
If the devil is in the details, the show is doing its best to take the devil by the tail.
"I am blown away by the professionalism, the attention to detail that the show has put together," Mathieu says. "They turned over every stone. The questions were so specific like: What kind of watch would they have worn? What would they have eaten during that lunch meeting? And that’s that kind of granular attention that will make this show so incredible for people.
"I don’t know how many times (Greene’s fellow showrunner Annmarie Morais) would text me or call me and say: ‘Did this really happen?’" Mathieu says.
"It was exactly like that," Greene concurs. "We cook up a scene and a series of things would happen and we just thought it sounds so fanciful, we better check with Saje."
"Almost every episode provides the viewer a jaw-dropping moment," Mathieu adds, ‘where you say: This was in Canada?’"
"That’s why it is so important, because the show is historicizing that moment in truly impressive ways."
"I speak as a Canadian kid growing up in Ottawa, I never thought I would be able to turn on the television and see not one not two but an entire cast of Black people telling the story about my own country," she says. "That would’ve saved me hours in having to cook up my own imagination as a kid."
The series is currently being shot in Winnipeg where The Order of Sleeping Car Porters — the first Black railway union in North America — was formed in 1917.
"It started in the Unity Pool Room at 795 Main St., a longtime hub for the city’s Black community over a period of decades," Pinnock says.
It is also the city where Mathieu did the bulk of her research for North of the Color Line.
But Winnipeg will not be playing itself during this first season.
"I will say that while Winnipeg is not concretely in the show, it is at the heart of the show," says Greene. "We’ve taken some of the history that happened in Winnipeg and transplanted it into Montreal.
"There is a mention of Winnipeg around the time of the general strike. The strike takes place in the show in Montreal is a mirror of the strike that took place in Winnipeg," Greene says.
"Our great hope is that people will watch the show and then be really curious about the real history," Greene says. "So they’re going to learn more about the history."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.