Pullman Porters on Screen, Part 2 (Since 1960)

As the prominence of American railroads began to decline drastically in the post-war era, and the escalating civil-rights movement diversified workplace opportunities for African Americans, the ubiquity of the Pullman Porter also began to fall.  In film, the ‘Pullman-Porter-as-black-archetype-for-white-audiences’ lost currency, and the figure of the Pullman Porter relocated to a very different branch of the film universe: documentaries and narrative features concerned with historical memory.


California Newsreel led the documentary charge, with Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle (1982) directed by Paul Wagner, and A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom (1996) directed by Dante James. Miles of Smiles chronicled the organizing of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, while For Jobs and Freedom, more broadly, focused on the wide ranging career of A. Philip Randolph.   Both documentaries were made for TV, and are currently available from California Newsreel.  [Note: BFC/A will be screening A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom on February 6, 2013.  More on that here.] In 2006, a third major documentary, Rising from the Rails (2006), directed by Brad Osborne and based on Larry Tye’s book, was released. Below, a clip from Miles of Smiles:

The first narrative feature on Pullman Porters, 10,000 Black Men Named George, came out in 2002, directed by Robert Townsend and starring Andre Braugher, Charles S. Dutton, and Mario Van Peebles. The film’s title comes from the antebellum practice of calling male slaves by their masters’ name, a racist gesture which carried into the Pullman era (George Pullman founded the Pullman Rail Company), similar to calling someone ‘boy.’  That particular part of the experience is depicted in this scene from the movie (and here’s another interesting clip):

While Townsend’s effort seems to be the only feature film which made it out of production, there were reports of Stanley Robertson, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, and Bill Cosby working with 20th Century Fox to produce a biopic on A. Philip Randolph and his wife, Lucille, in 2001; it’s unclear whether or not this project is still in the works, though Roberstson (who also produced Men of Honor) has passed away.

While we can appreciate the efforts made to portray Pullman porters and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, it’s hard to not feel like there is an under-representation of their experience in film, given their incredible and untold contributions to American life.  And yet, perhaps because of the influence of these films (and a slew of wonderful researchers and museums), efforts at telling the stories of Pullman porters may be on the increase.  In 2009, Amtrak launched a program to commemorate the contributions of Pullman porters.  And last year, playwright Cheryl L West’s Pullman Porter Blues took the Arena Stage – here’s a writeup from NPR.  Perhaps a sleeping car porter blockbuster is next?

Cleavant Derricks (L), as Sylvester in Pullman Porter Blues.

~ Jonathan Donald Jenner


Read “Pullman Porters on Screen, Part 1 (pre-1960)” here.

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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