For what Canada lacks in fictional renderings of it’s people and places is more than made up for in our rich history of documentary filmmaking. From the prairie films of Manitoban farmer James Freer in the 1890s to the countless topical offerings available at dedicated festivals like Hot Docs in Toronto and DOXA in Vancouver (the latter beginning this week), Canada has always been able to see itself reflected, for better or worse, in non-fictional form.
A rich resource for this genre lies in the hands of the National Film Board of Canada (aka NFB). Established in 1939 by Scottish filmmaker John Grierson (who in fact coined the term “documentary”), the board was “designed to help Canadians in all parts of Canada to understand the ways of living and the problems of Canadians in other parts”. It has continued in that mission since that time, producing short and feature docs on a spectrum of subjects from history to social and cultural issues of the day. All three of these come into play in a 1996 film screening at DOXA this year, Selwyn Jacob’s The Road Taken.
The Jim Crow-era of racial discrimination in the United States is well-documented, but Jacob’s film examines segregation in the workplace by focusing on the top profession available to Black men in the early 20thcentury: the Railway Porter. The porter position was established by the American Pullman Palace Car Company in 1867 to help facilitate overnight luxury service on transcontinental train sleeper cars. Black men were a cheap and abundant source of labour at the time and their historically-stereotyped servant role made them a perfect fit in the eyes of the railway owners. This tradition was adopted in Canada when Pullman expanded up north in the early 1900s making Railways the top employer of Black Canadian men in the country.
Jacobs illustrates the ins-and-outs of this segregated profession primarily via interviews with the men who made a lifelong career out of it including Eddie Bailey, Earl Briscoe, Calvin Ruck and Lee Williams to name a few. Plenty of ground is covered from the far-flung transcontinental destinations, Montreal as Canada’s Harlem, to the more thankless aspects of the job like 21-hour days, lack of sleep, low tolerance for mistakes and no opportunity for advancement until appeals to the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees and finally Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s levelled the playing field.
The film jumps between historical renderings of rail travel’s golden age and contemporary footage of the now-retired porters in their communities. The anecdotes are swift and to the point, aptly illustrated via archival photographs and filmstrips and the warm, capable narration of Frederick Ward. The viewer comes away with a sense of how porters were respected in the black community and could support a family, but also how limiting and degrading the day-to-day work could be.
The film captures a lot in it’s 53 minute runtime, but wraps up just as things start to really get interesting. Most of the piece is dedicated to nostalgic world-building, but some real potential is wasted by giving the fight for workplace equality during the civil rights movement so little screen time. It’s a compelling arc and the story would have easily borne the extension to feature length.
The Road Takenis a satisfying, albeit disjointed piece that introduces us to a world and way of life we either never experienced, or never thought to notice while taking the train.
The Road Taken screens at The Annex on Saturday May 5 @6:00pm as part of the DOXA Festival