Interview: Dawn Porter on the Social Education of “Bobby Kennedy for President”

It is commonly expected of politicians to have all the answers — or at least pretend they do, which is why Dawn Porter’s illuminating four-part documentary “Bobby Kennedy for President” is so refreshing. Chronicling the late RFK Jr’s 1968 campaign to cement the legacy of his brother President John F. Kennedy, which ended in tragedy when Robert was assassinated in Los Angeles just after winning the California primary, Porter demonstrates the great lengths Kennedy went to in order to understand ‎the complexities of the issues he would come to champion, convening meetings with leaders of the civil rights movement, touring the Mississippi Delta to learn of the region’s inescapable poverty, or linking arms with Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez as part of the farm workers’ struggle for a living wage in Delano, California.

As such, Porter reworks the dynamic of a biography to reflect the influence others had on Bobby Kennedy more than the other way around, bringing in such notables as Huerta, Harry Belafonte and Congressman John Lewis to share the memories of working with Kennedy, but getting just as vital testimony from aides such as Peter Edelman and William Arone, who could offer counsel to Kennedy and help facilitate what he would learn into political action. Over the course of four episodes, “Bobby Kennedy for President” shows the evolution of Kennedy, whose political savvy as U.S. Attorney General in his brother’s administration and subsequent tenure as a U.S. Senator from New York is well-known, yet whose political views have never been as articulated as clearly as they have here, illustrating his intellectual curiosity and capacity to change his mind. As the series streams on Netflix, Porter shared how her own ideas about Kennedy shifted after diving deep into his life, sifting through 240 hours of archival footage to create a proper portrait of the man and the experience of making a series set in the past to feel as if it’s unfolding in real time.

Dawn Porter's "Bobby Kennedy for President"How did this come about?

I had done another film with a German company and they approached me about this project, initially interested in the fact that Sirhan Sirhan was alive and still in prison. When they said that, I started poking around, doing my own research and started seeing what was out there on Bobby Kennedy and thought, this was a really great time to reexamine his life, his impact and his legacy, so it just grew from there. We came to Netflix, and I had this idea that there was a lot of film footage that we could use to tell this story and they just got it right away.

Netflix committed to four [episodes] and when we started, it felt like four hours was so luxurious, but then as we got into it and saw how huge this story was, it felt like oh my goodness, how can we tell this giant story in only four hours? We needed to find a throughline [because] we can’t tell every bit of Bobby Kennedy’s life in just four hours, and my particular throughline was how does this talk about him, how does this amplify him as a person or how does this show him changing? That’s how we sorted through all the choices that we had, and it was important to be working with the creative execs at Netflix. They’re filmmakers’ filmmakers and really understood what I was trying to illuminate and trying to tease out that story, so it was a really helpful collaboration in that sense.

Stylistically, you’ve said the original conception was more along the lines of a purely archival experience like “LA 92.” How did this evolve in that way?

Yeah, I was really influenced by “LA 92” and the power of seeing that imagery without interruption, so I wondered if there was enough footage of Bobby Kennedy that we could do something similar [because] the impulse was to have an immersive experience, to not have talking head people tell you what to think, but to be able to take whatever lessons you could take for yourself. But it became clear that we needed some historical context. We needed some voices, but I still wanted to keep them minimal, and I also wanted people who were not necessarily historians, but people who really knew Bobby Kennedy as a person, who worked with or lived with him. The objective really was to make him a person and not a phenomenon, so first we started telling the story through the archive that we found and then we layered in the voices and it felt like that gave an even greater depth to the footage that we were seeing.

Were there any interviews that were especially enlightening?

Harry Belafonte’s interview was really a turning point for us. He really encapsulated and crystallized a main theme for me, which was transformation and change. The great thing about Mr. Belafonte is he’s not romantic. He has such an evocative description that he brings you back into the time, so intercutting his interview with some of the footage was fun. [laughs] He’s also not too bad lookin’ still. But his interview inspired us to say, “Let’s ask these types of questions of folks,” and we would show people our archive of themselves or of a time that we were asking them about and I think that really helped to place their memories in time and we got richer stories because of it.

Dawn Porter's "Bobby Kennedy for President"Since there is this conversation that begins to happen between the archival footage and the interviews, would the latter tip you off for what to look for in the footage or did you have most of the archival in place before starting to do interviews?

It really is a conversation and we did the archive first, looking [at the footage] with an editor and a great research team. The challenge I posed to them was “Here are the highlights, the things that I’d love to explore – what footage do we have that helps illuminate those?” So we did a really long string out of topics, so each topic got its own archival little mini-movie. Only after we saw that and we started putting them together did we layer in the voices. We figured out, “Okay, who can speak to this time? Who was there?” And it was challenging. People are older, they’ve passed away, so it wasn’t easy to find the right voices with the restrictions that I was imposing, but it was fun. It was like finding the right puzzle pieces to put together.

Were there any epiphanies from the archival that changed your ideas about who Bobby Kennedy was?

A few things came through. One is just how funny he was – he was self-deprecating and had a great sense of humor. He enjoyed laughing and didn’t mind being the object of the joke. And every bit of footage that we chose was to make Bobby Kennedy more of a person and less of a calcified historical figure. Watching some of the family videos, you also saw what a good team he was with his partner in life, Ethel, and how their family was very exuberant and just tactile – he was always patting a child or tossing somebody in a pool or running around with them. He really enjoyed his children and that really deepened our understanding of who he was and also his motivation. He really felt that it was important not only for the whole country, but for his own children to have a lesson in service and of what could they do to contribute. So those were things that were really striking.

You’re also able to show something that must be difficult to articulate – how good a listener he was, since you demonstrate how he’d take in information and turn it into action. Was that a challenge?

That’s the beauty of having a series is we could show that evolution without hitting people over the head with it. You could see it for yourself [as you] hear about him interacting with John Lewis or seeing him with Cesar Chavez, or hearing Harry Belafonte’s stories, and you get the sense that this is not a person who surrounded himself with yes men or demanded loyalty. That was earned. He understood that.

And he was not a person who came fully formed to the civil rights struggle. He had to be pushed, and it’s really critical to understand that there were minorities who were leaders who pushed him that way and insisted that he hear their truth. That’s why the [James] Baldwin conversation is really important and [how he] invited Marian Wright, a twentysomething, to testify before Congress – which was hugely important and informative experience for him, and I think for her as well.

There are so many moments when you. Watch this archival footage and you think so little has changed. Is there contemporary influence of the outside world while you’re putting this together?

I was 100% feeling the weight of the contemporary political situation. When you’re see what a difference a strong leader makes, a person with principles who’s curious and who challenges himself. Bobby Kennedy doesn’t just go to Mississippi for a photo opportunity, although he does bring a lot of press attention, but he then follows up [his visit] by sending Peter Edelman to the Department of Agriculture to get food to people in Mississippi – that is leadership and there were so many examples of those kinds of actions that were really striking, so I was grateful to have the time to tell those different stories.

Dawn Porter's "Bobby Kennedy for President"Since your background is largely in verite filmmaking, was that a help in constructing certain scenes in ways they become dynamic? You see multiple angles on a number of important moments that must’ve come from various sources – not just one.

It was a challenge, but being a verite filmmaker, I’m always looking for the small moments that illuminate – in “Gideon’s Army,” [I can remember] there was a prisoner who looked calm but has a foot tapping under the chair that shows nerves. When you haven’t shot something yourself or you’re [not] planning it, what basically it means is you have to watch all of that footage really carefully to pull out a 360° view of that scene. We had this fantastic archivist Rich Remsberg and we would say, “Let’s find all of the coverage of this particular issue.” So for the Cesar Chavez moment, we wanted to get as close as possible to the experience that you have when you’re shooting a verite film and we didn’t get that footage in until almost the end, but [verite] was definitely the model that was in my mind.

What’s it been like to put this out into the world?

I did not expect for this to really strike such a chord with so many people. They come up to me and tell me their Bobby Kennedy stories – where they were when he was assassinated or going to see that famous train ride from New York to Washington D.C. I knew that Kennedy affected me deeply, and I wasn’t a teenager or an adult at that time, but in seeing how important he still is to so many people, we’ve just been blown away by the response. When you work so hard on something, you just don’t know what the reaction is going to be. You know you love it and it’s been really gratifying to see so many other people who have responded so well and with such love to this material.

“Bobby Kennedy for President” is now streaming on Netflix.

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