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TELEVISION: ‘The Porter’ elevates Black working-class stories

by Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (TNS) | June 7, 2022 at 2:11 a.m.
Loren Lott (left) and Luke Bilyk attend the Los Angeles launch event for “The Porter” on BET+. (Getty Images for BET+/TNS/Phillip Faraone)

I'm a big fan of "The Porter," the juicy, compelling series set in 1920s Montreal and Chicago, now streaming on BET+ and other platforms.

Premiering earlier this year north of the U.S./Canadian border, this co-production of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and BET blends undersung Black history, gangster melodrama, nightclub sequences and a rich array of Black working-class lives, all against the backdrop of the historic formation of a North American railway workers union. At the time, white workers typically were paid three times more than Black employees. Out of such inequity, movements are made, though 30 minutes into the first of its eight artfully sustained episodes, it's clear "The Porter" has a lot going on besides clandestine labor meetings.

The series hit big enough in Canada to make a second season extraordinarily likely. No hard-nosed docudrama, this is instead a freewheeling '20s fantasia, a decade in the making. (Marsha Greene, Annmarie Morais, Charles Officer and R.T. Thorne took the reins as series creators, following a narrative template set out by Arnold Pinnock and Bruce Ramsay.) The trains in "The Porter" run primarily from Montreal to Chicago; the storylines crisscross, easily and imaginatively.

Much of the imagery and inspiration is pulled from the movies as well as real life. Bootleggers; bordellos; South Side Chicago killers; nightclub dancers dreaming of stardom; wormy, purse-lipped railroad tycoons determined to keep the workers down and scrapping for scraps: That's a start. The series has its corn, and glitz, and it doesn't all work equally well. A few performances settle for two dimensions instead of three. But the best of this ensemble seizes the day.

"The Harlem of the North": That's what Canadians called Montreal's St. Antoine neighborhood. This is where many of the show's primary characters call home. Junior (Aml Ameen) is Jamaican-born, a hustler and, as a sleeping car porter, a fledgling numbers-runner who matriculates into the Chicago underworld. Olunike Adeliyi has a snake-eyed field day as gangland boss Queenie, aka "the South Side Butcher."

"You married?" she's asked in one scene.

"I'm a lot of things I'll never be again," she replies, coolly.

Junior's porter friend and fellow World War I veteran, Zeke Garrett (Ronnie Rowe, in a fully successful portrayal of a profoundly decent-hearted man), is driven by a higher labor cause. After the gallingly preventable death of a Black coworker on the job, Zeke begins formulating ideas for integrating and unionizing the railway workforce. Being a Black porter, one character says, means being "the most invisible man on this earth." "The Porter" is about making the invisible visible.

Meanwhile, over at Club Stardust — Episode 1, set in 1921, starts there and feels like the opening number of a musical in a good way — aspiring singer-dancer Lucy (Loren Lott) needs money to bankroll her ambitions. The bankroll emerges in the callow, silver-spoon form of the ne'er-do-well son (Luke Bilyk, more caricature than character) of the railway magnate (Paul Essiembre) whose anti-unionization tactics include human trafficking, by rail, from the U.S. to bust the union efforts.

We'll mention two more choice performance components of this binge-friendly series. Mouna Traore, as Marlene, Junior's wife, enjoys a particularly strong storyline; she's a St. Antoine missionary working for the United Negro Improvement Association (the real-life Marcus Garvey pops up in one episode), while parenting Teddy (Jahron Wilson), her and Junior's son. Living with autism, he reveals his musical gift gradually. Traore excels in making Marlene neither one-note scold, nor predicable saint. The series is just spacious enough to allow for plenty of emotional authenticity between a dozen or more key players.

The other ringer, you know: Alfre Woodard served as an executive producer on "The Porter," and she is fantastic, funny and touching as Fay, the bordello madam saved, early on, by Marlene's ministrations. While the main lines of the story belong to Zeke and Junior, there's plenty to spread around.

Filmed mostly in Winnipeg, Canada, the series is distinguished by a gently but freely ahistoric approach to dialogue and music, ranging across the decades to come. The production design, mostly terrific, is undermined a tiny bit with each cutaway to another fake-looking digital-effects shot of the Montreal-to-Chicago train, chugging this way or that, looking like Thomas the Tank Engine or the Polar Express.

Small matters. By Episode 3 of "The Porter," I had the happy, sneaking sense that the problems wouldn't ultimately amount to much of a problem. "The Porter" imagines stories built upon a century-old piece of history, which will be news to a lot of viewers. That news is also seriously engaging entertainment.


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