Published December 21, 2020
When Marlene Jennings, a former member of Canada’s parliament, finished reading the most recent book by UB faculty member Cecil Foster, she immediately sent him an email enthusiastically exclaiming how Foster’s story about the historical contributions of sleeping car porters had movie potential.
Jennings volunteered to do whatever she could to convert the book into a movie or TV series.
At the time, Foster, a professor of transnational studies, wasn’t able to share details that such a project was in the works. Instead, he put the first Black female parliamentarian from Quebec, whose older brother, Preston, was a porter, in contact with the producer, who similarly swore her to secrecy.
But now it’s official.
“They Call Me George: The Untold Story of the Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada” has inspired the series — planned for an initial eight episodes — co-produced by CBC and BET+, the streaming service owned by BET. Previously, CBC had promoted “They Call Me George” as a “must-read non-fiction book for Black history month.”
The project is the largest Black-led television production in Canada’s history.
Filming for the tentatively titled “The Porter” begins in 2021, but Foster is already contributing his creative talents as a consultant. As the story takes shape, he meets regularly with the writing team, reviewing and commenting on scripts, confirming the accuracy of the history and suggesting possible plot lines.
Foster, who was born in Barbados and immigrated to Toronto in 1978, brings many talents to the table. He is a scholar who has published works of fiction and nonfiction. He has a background as a reporter in print and broadcast journalism. He also served as editor of Contrast, Canada’s first Black-oriented newspaper.
He says, fundamentally, that he’s a storyteller. And he is proud of the creators for bringing this story to the screen.
“Telling stories and doing different things inspire me,” he says. “I tell this to my students at UB. Life is without limits. Enter portals that provide access to a wide universe, and keep opening doors. Recognize that your expertise is not about silos; it’s about interacting with people.”
Foster’s book tells a story absent from other histories about how the expanding railroad industry of the 19th century and the emergence of luxury sleeping cars required employees to staff them. The sleeping cars were rolling full-service accommodations that allowed riders to stay on the train rather than in a hotel during stopovers. The passengers, unwilling to learn the porters’ names, called anyone working in that capacity “George.”
First as a groundbreaking work of history and now as an historic television project, Foster’s choice of referring to the porters’ history as an “untold story” is a qualifier that now seems to be an ironic grace note to the book’s larger title.
But he insists there’s more to share.
“I worked long and hard to tell the story of Black people across the hemisphere. This book, and now the series, brings that all together in a transnational sense, showing how people from Canada, the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean all share a common experience based on how they overcome the oppression they have always endured.”
Then President-elect Barack Obama hinted at that story when, in 2012, he arrived in Washington for his inauguration in a retrofitted sleeping car. Symbolically, he was ushered on by sleeping car porters in period uniform — a point Foster referenced in an autographed copy of his book to an A-list American actor and movie producer involved with the project but whom he is not yet at liberty to name.
“Obama realized that as the nation’s first Black president he was riding on the shoulders of giants,” says Foster. “Sleeping car porters created a brotherhood that in the process gave rise in the 1920s to the first African American-led union in the United States.
“The porters were the instruments of social change.”
And the all-Black creative team is another step in the process initiated by the porters.
“It is gratifying to see that this is an all-Black production, from the producers, to the writers, to BET and all the connections that accompany the network, as well as all the top talent and people working behind the scenes from African and African American communities,” says Foster. “It shows that Black people can rise to the occasion and tell their own stories without supervisors to say what’s good for them.”
“The Porter” will be a period piece, as first envisioned by the series originator Arnold Pinnock, taking place shortly after the First World War in Chicago, Detroit and Little Burgundy, a neighborhood in Montreal, Quebec, often called “the Harlem of the north.”
Season one will feature four leading roles. Two are returning veterans of the war, who find work on the trains as porters, each lending a different approach to their fight for workers’ and civil rights. A third lead is the spouse of one of the veterans, who fights against gender discrimination in Little Burgundy. The fourth character is a singer trying to forward a career where advancement is hindered by racism.
“The Black experience had many locations because the railroad linked different communities,” says Foster. “What was happening in Louisiana, Tulsa and New York was happening in Montreal, Halifax and Vancouver.
“The porters lived in those cities and they worked on the trains, and the trains brought together people and news from different communities. That’s how the Black experience was built across North America.”
And for Foster, that continental experience is critical — in fact, it’s the subject of his next book.
“When you look at the development of the Americas, the Canadian experience is not separate from the U.S. and the U.S. experience is not separate from the Canadian experience,” he says. “It could have gone very differently back in 1812, but I believe the Canadian experience is part of the American dream. And if you buy into the notion of the American dream, you see it really becomes a dream of the ‘Americas.’
“The fundamental way of life and the role slavery has played are part of a collective, lived experience for Black people,” he says. “What happened in New York happened in Toronto, and it happened in Jamaica, Barbados, Colombia, Argentina and elsewhere.
The story is one that Foster says also runs through Buffalo, a terminus for the Underground Railroad, and a city where Frederick Douglass lectured, and of jazz — the music so integral to the story of the porters.
“Buffalo is part of the porters’ story, a point where trains left for eastern and western Canada and other U.S. cities. That’s important to me,” says Foster. “It speaks to the centrality of Buffalo and being a professor at UB, where I have an opportunity to tell this story and inspire my students to do the same.”