Alfre Woodard Discusses ‘The Porter’ and the Universal Truths of the Black Resistance

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Alfre Woodard, right, in "The Porter." Image: courtesy of BET+.

Alfre Woodard is one of the most versatile and accomplished actors of her generation. Throughout her illustrious career, she’s received a Golden Globe, four Primetime Emmy Awards and three Screen Actors Guild Awards. Along with an Academy Award nomination and two Grammy Awards, she was ranked seventeenth on The New York Times list of “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century.”

In addition to her acting and producing, Woodard is also a political activist. She is the founder of Artists for a New South Africa, an organization devoted to advancing democracy and equality in the country. In this vein, her latest project The Porter—in which she co-stars and is an executive producer—is a compelling series that spotlights the freedom struggle of the Black diaspora.

Created by Arnold Pinnock and directed by Charles Officer and R.T. Thorne, The Porter depicts the often-overlooked history of Black Canadian and African-American men who worked as Pullman porters in the period following World War I. And, it delves into the creation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as the first Black-led labor union and the influence and power of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) as well as the ambitions of those, irrespective of their nationality, in their fight for liberation. 

EBONY caught up with the esteemed actress and discussed with her the universal truths of Black resistance as well as her work on the BET+ series.

EBONY: When was the first time you knew that you wanted to pursue acting?

Woodard: I went to a coed Catholic school called Bishop Kelly in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When I was 16, there was a nun that got me to be in a play. I remember saying that I couldn’t stand up in front of people and pretend to be somebody else. I had been a cheerleader, a student officer, and all, but something about pretending to be somebody else was a bridge too far. But the nun said, “Don’t do it for yourself. Do it for God.” She got me to do it with that. After the play, I felt like I had been walking around on dry land trying to do the breaststroke my whole life and suddenly somebody tipped me into the water. That gave me all the freedom I needed and I knew I wanted to keep doing it.

Your new series The Porter is set during the same period as the Tulsa Massacre. Did you draw any connection between what was happening in Oklahoma to the Black struggle in Canada during filming?

I purposely kept those things separate because the Tulsa situation was just too intense and I’m a daughter of the north side of Tulsa. It was an incredible time and celebration, reckoning and recommitment. I figured the people in Montreal didn’t know about that so I needed to stay in that space as a performer. As a producer, I had a different idea. What was happening to Tulsa, was happening all across the country, within a three-year time period that started in 1919. So we know that everywhere the formerly enslaved were being industrious; they were being crushed, torched and denied. But that’s our history and that’s not sad to me.

You know some people say, “Why do we have to hear a story about us getting beat down?” The story is never about us getting beat down, but it’s a story about us standing up, rising up—not just surviving but flourishing. We’ve flourished because we have striving in our cultural DNA. That’s what we see so much of in The Porter with our guys Zeke and, Junior who have come back from the first World War. It was one of the most brutal because it was hand-to-hand, trench-to-trench. They were boys fighting that war, but they still found a way, a place in our society when they returned.

Charles Officer and R.T. Thorne both do an exceptional job directing the series. It’s not only shot beautifully but it shows the similarities between the Black experience in Canada and America.  How was it to work with them?

Most people don’t really direct a lot anymore. They think that it’s the camera, the crane shot, because they are into the equipment. I tell young actors all the time that they have to learn to direct themselves. You have to make sure that you’re honest and authentic in every moment of your portrayal. But with Archie and Charles, they directed. They had a vision and they did all the shots. Did you see how gorgeous and cinematically perfect the storytelling is? They also had the ability and the wherewithal to speak to an actor in the language they understood to help them get somewhere you wouldn’t have gone without them. They said “Tilt this way,” or “How do you think she feels at this moment?” I got directed and I loved it because I had been missing that for so long. It’s kind of old school, that whole idea of directing. A lot of those directors have gone on but I got the joy of it in those two young brothers,

Why are these stories of Black resistance important for you to tell as an actor and producer?

Historically, I knew how important the porters were in the life of the Black community. They were ever-present and they were the uniformed heroes that only we recognize. We knew they were heroes. They were men in uniform. That’s what I love about this story of the people of St. Antoine. It is very male-centric because it’s about the porters and we watch them struggle to unionize. That’s when Americans realized that you could not have a decent life that you believed you deserved under that constitution if you didn’t have the union guaranteeing you hours, benefits ,medical and all that. In The Porter, we get to watch our guys do that ,and they’re all very different in how their side hustles shaped who they are. Whether it is a legitimate one, like Zeke organizing a community and trying to build a union; or like Junior, who wanted to get money like how the white boys made money. And the women are so present at the same time. Our showrunners, Marsha Greene and Annmarie Morais bring so much fullness to the women that are there who also have stories to tell. Marlene who is a Black cross nurse, a Garveyite who is rebelling against the Garveyite policy. And then we watch Lucy who can dance and sing her butt off but still has to deal with colorism. Everybody’s story is fully realized. 

Lastly, what do you want the viewers to take away from The Porter?

I never say what I want the viewers to take away from a project because it’s not mine to say how a viewer receives something. We’re all incredibly varied and we have our own story of who we are so when we see something or hear something it is as varied as our fingerprints. All I ever want people to do is sit down and watch. Let us tell you a story and then it’s yours.

The Porter is currently streaming on BET+.

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