Arnold Pinnock’s dream project didn’t come together easily. Instead, in the years the Canadian actor fought to pitch and produce a series rooted in the history and culture of Black people in this country, there seemed to be little interest.
“In the past, I was told straight to my face in some circumstances that there was not an audience,” Pinnock said. “So financially to do a project … it wasn’t beneficial.”
In the eyes of many network heads, he said, there was little appetite for such narratives, and putting money into them would only showcase how little audiences cared.
Since those early experiences, though, things have begun to change, Pinnock explained. And that shift helped him to bring the historical drama The Porter, which examines the real-life civil rights struggle of railway porters to create North America’s first Black labour union, to life. Now the series is being jointly produced by CBC and BET+, and it is currently filming in Winnipeg as the largest Black-led TV series ever created in Canada.
But while his success highlights the forward progress the industry has made in supporting Black creators, other events offer a more sobering look at how far there is to go — a lag in progress that some creators say is being masked by positive news releases and the limited success of a few creators.
For example, even as Telefilm Canada pledged last year to increase representation “in order to abolish systemic racism” through its Equity and Representation Action Plan, a recent study by the Canadian Media Fund pointed to the fact that Canada has failed to capitalize on “global demand for content from Indigenous, Black or racialized creators.”
Telefilm Canada only announced its plan after admitting it couldn’t provide detailed answers on how much funding was allocated to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) filmmakers in the past five years, since it has not historically collected that data.
While Canadian actor-brothers Shamier Anderson and Stephan James created The Black Academy, Canada’s first-ever awards show dedicated to celebrating Black talent on screen, a 2021 report by the Toronto-based not-for-profit Women in View at the same time gave the country a “dismal” rating when it comes to the hiring of Black and Indigenous women in the film and television industry.
“Growth in work for Black women and women of colour has not kept pace with broader industry trends. Of particular concern is the area of television writing,” the report noted in its conclusion.
“As both film and TV draw on the same talent pool, it appears that hidden barriers are preventing Black women & women of colour writers from gaining entry to TV.”
Pinnock noted that it was a “very, very tough road” to get The Porter developed but said the change that has been made is important — and it’s possible to keep it going.
There is a vanguard of Black Canadian creators building strong stories, bringing more Black narratives home to Canada and shifting what decision-makers see as a safe bet. From The Porter’s own crew of Charles Officer, R.T. Thorne, Annmarie Morais and Marsha Greene to Nova Scotia’s Diggstown from showrunner Floyd Kane and many more, Pinnock said Black Canadian voices are continuing to shift the tide.
And the more they’re able to do so, the more the trend will continue.
“After, you know, all of the relevance that’s happened in the last two years, I believe there’s more eyeballs on networks wanting to change,” he said. “Because let’s be straight up, BIPOC products [weren’t] in the mainstream of shows being developed, and they definitely are [now].”