The new BET+ drama The Porter tells the origin story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which is the first Black labor union. However, that’s just a quick description to get viewers in the door. It’s also a gripping period piece following a Black community’s fight to survive and thrive in 1920s Montreal.
The series focuses on Junior (Aml Ameen) and Zeke (Ronnie Rowe Jr.), two friends and World War I veterans who work as train porters. An accident leads each of them to question the authority they work under and take different paths to protect themselves. For Junior, that means getting involved in the dangerous smuggling world, while for Zeke, it’s about unionizing to get the same rights as white workers.
The Canadian import features a talented cast that includes Ameen (Rustin), Rowe Jr. (Star Trek: Discovery), Mouna Traoré (The Umbrella Academy), Alfre Woodard (Marvel’s Luke Cage) and Loren Lott (The Young and the Restless). Ameen and Woodard spoke with The Root about the epic scale of the series, their fascinating characters and how the period piece still feels modern.
Aside from her role on screen, the legendary Woodard is also an executive producer on The Porter, so it was important to her that the story be told with authenticity and respect. Like viewers, she marveled at the detailed production design, sets and costumes.
“It was glorious to live in that world. It put me in the mind of, instead of a moving picture, a moving painting,” Woodard said. “None of it was for the sake of beauty. It was all painting that very specific story, and helping to tell that story.”
As a fan of classic movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, it was a dream come true for Ameen to live in this captivating world for a little while.
“When I saw it was a 1920s project, and I had the opportunity to go back in time, that was one of the first things that drew me to it,” Ameen said. “A guy like Junior who is a porter, shining a light on what is normally a classical background character and bringing them to the forefront of the storytelling, finding out who they really were. Junior is complex. He’s a man with incredible ambition, he’s a hustler, he’s a family man, he’s a war veteran. All these complexities of the time I’ve always found fascinating.”
For Ameen, it was important to show Junior as more than a one-note wannabe gangster. He wanted to portray the full scope of Junior’s pride, intelligence and dignity. He also felt a need to make sure the porters were given their due for their importance to North American history.
“He’s a man ahead of his time, and he’s a man following his gut, going on instincts of what’s important to him, which is freedom at all costs,” he said. “What’s brilliant about The Porter is it’s really empowering the legacy of the shoulders we stand on. The porters were the economic power in their community. They were earning a wage and living that was able to provide structure and life to their community.”
Woodard originally wasn’t planning to act in the series, but the character of Fay, an older prostitute who runs a brothel and cherishes her independence, was too good to pass up. The See star made sure Fay was a fun character who isn’t like anyone you’ve seen before.
“Finding a person who was determined to live freely and have joy in her life. She has it with the women because she has set that tone in the brothel,” she said. “There’s a sisterhood, there’s protection here and there’s no judgment. You don’t have to answer to anybody.”
Considering that women are back out on the streets, marching for their rights, Woodard says despite the 1920s setting, Fay is definitely a modern woman who fits in with the 21st century.
“There’s a lot there for modern women and girls to learn…maybe we didn’t know those stories of women with agency because we just assumed the laws were there and they were shut out,” Woodard said. “Haven’t we always figured out a way to keep the world on its axis? Isn’t this whole thing here because women have always known how to do it? We may have had to do things under the radar or unofficially but we know we’re the ones that keep it going.”
The Porter is now available to stream on BET+.