Interview: Dawn Porter on How History is Made Step By Step in “John Lewis: Good Trouble”

In one of the many memorable moments from “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” Dawn Porter’s glorious portrait of the legendary congressman from Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, Rep. Lewis can be seen outside the Bella Vista Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, taking more time than his staff would like talking to parishioners when a car is waiting to whisk him away to another campaign stop. Resisting calls to hop in so he can get onto the business of criss-crossing the state to raise the profile of a wave of young progressive candidates, it is a perfect encapsulation of how the congressman holds the past and future in equal regard when he talks to a woman around the same age as himself who, like him, can recall picking cotton.

“You’d want to go out in the morning so the dew was on it and it’d be heavier,” Lewis remembers as if it were yesterday, and too close no matter how long ago it was.

At 80, Rep. Lewis’ memory is as sharp as ever, which makes Porter’s ability to contextualize his career and present him with things he admits to never seeing before in “Good Trouble” all the more impressive when it appears as revelatory to him as it will be to an audience. Porter’s timing couldn’t be more unfortunately fortuitous when she follows Rep. Lewis in the run-up to the 2018 midterms when the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act in 2013 can be seen vividly, particularly in his native Alabama where then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s closure of polling places in majority Black communities likely gave him the edge over Stacey Abrams for the state’s governorship, yet shows he’s lost none of the fight he had from the days of walking alongside Martin Luther King Jr. when he was 17 and was given a Greyhound bus ticket to Montgomery by the reverend after volunteering himself to the cause of civil rights.

Even as a host of political luminaries from recently elected peers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar to longtime colleagues such as Rep. Jim Clyburn and the late Elijah Cummings pay tribute to congressional giant, it becomes clear that Rep. Lewis sees his work as far from over and Porter honors him with a film that reflects his place in history while becoming a part of her own ongoing work of illustrating the impact government action and legislation has on the daily lives of Americans, from her profile of public defenders “Gideon’s Army” in 2013 and has continued on with films such as “Trapped,” showing the growing inaccessibility of abortion clinics, and the Netflix series “Bobby Kennedy for President.” Cleverly reconfiguring a traditional trip down memory lane to keep things in the present tense, the filmmaker actively engages Rep. Lewis during the rare moments when he can sit down to reflect by capturing his reactions to rare footage of the nonviolent protests he led or was a part of and coverage of his climb throughout treacherous political terrain to enact meaningful changes in national policy.

Arriving in virtual cinemas just a little over a month after the murder of George Floyd reignited a movement towards racial equality in the nonviolent spirit that Rep. Lewis has long championed, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” couldn’t be any more timely and it was extraordinarily gracious of Porter to talk about the film at such a sensitive moment and all the little ways she found to properly capture such a major American icon in all of his humanity.

Since you’ve interviewed Congressman Lewis in the past, had a full biography been percolating as a thought in the back of your mind for a while?

I would definitely say it was a thought, but to give credit where credit is due, CNN came to me. They knew that John Lewis appeared in “Bobby Kennedy for President,” the Netflix series, and I think they had such success with the RBG film, maybe they were looking for some more 80-year-olds who were amazing, so he was at the top of the list. [laughs] But in that series, I think people hadn’t seen John Lewis really speak that way.

For me, it was a surprise. I don’t think I realized that not only did he work for Bobby Kennedy, but that he organized the rally that day that Martin Luther King was killed. And that day, the white organizers were encouraging Bobby Kennedy not go out and address the crowd and John Lewis said, “You must address that crowd.” Indianapolis was one of the only cities that did not burn that night, and how prescient is that today when we think about addressing people, gathering in community, listening to people – that is how we address grievances. We don’t stop them from airing them. We listen to them respectfully. And that’s what Bobby Kennedy did that night and he also showed that there was some hope, that people were listening and there was a leader. That decision was as much John Lewis’ as anybody’s, and that is why we study history. That’s why we learn these lessons.

When you’re a filmmaker, you examine the same subject different ways, so examining Bobby Kennedy’s legacy, which is the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was a very natural progression to move into John Lewis’ era of activism, which continues through to this day, so I was in that headspace already. I never imagined we’d be where we are [right now]. I thought we’d be further along than this, and when CNN approached me, another huge advantage we had is this marvelous archivist Rich Remsberg, who had unearthed all of this footage of John Lewis [for “Bobby Kennedy for President” already], and he was saying, “There’s a film here, there’s a film here,” so it all came together.

It’s such a great moment when you realize he’s watching some of the footage for the first time. How did the idea come about to present it to him in that way?

Every year he does a pilgrimage to Selma bridge in Alabama and we were invited along on that pilgrimage and one of the stops along the way was at Bryan Stevenson’s remarkable history museum [The Legacy Museum and Memorial]. I watched John Lewis approach an installation that was about him, and he was watching footage of himself and while he’s watching it, he turns to this kid, this teenager who was next to him and said, “I can’t believe that’s me!” [laughs] And he started telling a story I’d never heard before. I interviewed him many times at this point and I thought, “Oh, this is a way to bring him back [to those events].”

I had [already] done a little bit of this with him. We had shown him some footage of himself during the “Bobby Kennedy” interview of specific moments and it worked really well, so I just wanted to take that idea and put it on steroids. We rented a theater in Washington D.C. near his home and with Jessica Congdon, a marvelous editor, and Rich Remsberg, the archivist, we created like a mini film of archive sequences just for him. We put him in a theater and turned the lights down and I just asked him questions, [which] brought him into those moments. He was reacting and telling me the story of those sequences, and instead of me asking so many questions, he would just tell me the story of it. During the film when he says, “I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before,” I think it was really special for both of us.

His time is obviously precious when he’s got such a busy schedule as a Congressman and you’re hearing him telling stories about the past on the stump. This may be mundane to ask, but was it a challenge to figure out how best to utilize the time you had with him for interviews versus what could be achieved elsewhere?

That’s the $64,000 question. That was a constant conversation with producers and with his office because it’s the Congress. You don’t get unlimited access to the Congress. [laughs] So we really had to be specific about which days we were going to film and what we were allowed to film. His schedule was also so packed that we wouldn’t just have to get his consent, we’d also have to get the consent of whoever he was meeting with, so it was a real production stressor. What I really wanted to do though was to in some ways locate the film in the present and then reflect back on what were some seminal moments that I think were formative for him. His life is so rich and so long that there was so much to cover, so I wanted to then go back to the moments I thought were most meaningful for him, but it was hard. [laughs] To tell you the honest truth, we have many versions [of this film].

Have you gotten to share the film with Congressman Lewis yet?

I have, and [because] he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he can’t travel. This was before the world shut down, so I live in California and I flew to his house in Washington D.C. to take the film to him. It was really important to me that he be able to see it before other people and we sat and watched it together. We both laughed and cried a little bit and then we just had this magical afternoon after that — we had tea and he was peaceful and comfortable — and it’s really one of the great experiences of my entire life, being able to not just make it, but to be able to make it and share it with him.

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” will be available on digital and demand on July 3rd. A full list of ways to watch it is here.

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