Could there possibly be a more apt time for a documentary about John Lewis, the civil rights pioneer and longtime Georgia congressman, than now? In this singular moment of protest and cultural shift, documentarian Dawn Porter is hoping that her new film “John Lewis: Good Trouble” will be a part of the conversation.
“Despite some evidence to the contrary, I count myself as an optimistic person. Between the pandemic and all this violence, it is a moment to be introspective,” Porter said via phone. “This is an opportunity to think about what motivated all of the activities John Lewis undertook as a young person, and also studying how he was able to transform activism into policy.”
Lewis, now 80 and battling pancreatic cancer, speaks to the camera in Porter’s film, with contemporary interviews interspersed with footage of his decades of work on equality—including his famous walk across the Selma bridge in 1965, where he was struck on the head by a police baton—that led up to his long tenure in Congress.
ANTHONY FRANCIS reviews “John Lewis: Good Trouble”
CNN came to Porter to make the film based on her previous multi-part documentary “Bobby Kennedy for President” (2018). The filmmaker said that making the film about the Kennedy family put her in the mindset to continue exploring the social justice work of the sixties, which included Lewis working directly with Kennedy.
“One of the stories that I learned during the making of that film is that John Lewis had volunteered for Bobby Kennedy and had organized Kennedy’s speech the night that Martin Luther King was murdered,” Porter said. “On that night in Indianapolis, Kennedy’s other advisers were telling him it was too dangerous [to speak], and John Lewis told him, ‘They need to hear your voice in this time of tragedy.’
“And Indianapolis was one of the cities that did not erupt” in riots, as did many other American cities after King’s assassination, Porter said.
Key to Kennedy’s and Lewis’s effectiveness, Porter believes, is they didn’t just speak publicly about social justice, they put their beliefs into action. “People were familiar with the Freedom Rides, but I wanted to go back to those moments and [discover] what were the days and months like before that, because that’s how I think you understand a person’s activism.”
Porter’s archivist unearthed vintage footage of Lewis as a younger man, planning marches and helping train other activists for sit-ins, wherein black people would sit peaceably at whites-only lunch counters to draw attention to the evils of Jim Crow. And footage has long been available to the public of Lewis being struck on the head at the Selma bridge in 1965, the effects of which have been with the man ever since.
“He was really badly beaten, and did think in that moment that he was going to die,” Porter said. “I think it’s hard for most of us to imagine what that healing time was like, but he doesn’t really focus on those terrible parts. He focuses on what it was like to recover.”
“He wanted to get back out and keep marching [while] other people wanted him to stay in the hospital. He’s a study in resilience.”
Porter filmed Lewis over the course of a year, before Covid-19 and before Confederate statues began to come down. Porter followed him to hearings on Capitol Hill as well as spoke to Lewis’s family members and some of his constituents in Georgia.
And despite the congressman’s reputation as a public firebrand, Porter said that in person Lewis is actually rather quiet.
“I love how significant art is in his life. Some politicians are kind of all about work, but that’s not Mr. Lewis,” she said. “He loves to go antiquing, which is one of the only things I’m sad we didn’t get to film.”
Porter says she has been in contact with her subject since the unrest of 2020 began, largely due to the killing by a police officer of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Porter said Lewis has been undergoing cancer treatment and necessarily taking it slow, though she believes this must be frustrating for a man who is used to being on the front lines of social justice.
“But he’s making sure his voice is still heard. I hope that having his film about to come out is part of that,” Porter said. “We never would have thought that this moment would be ‘this moment.’”
While he hasn’t been seen much publicly the past few months, Lewis is still making his voice heard on Twitter, including voicing support for the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 aimed at curbing some of the police excesses that led to Floyd’s death.
“John Lewis’s statement has been consistent and clear since he was a teenager,” Porter said, adding that she finds it charming that this eighty-year-old man is now using the megaphone of Twitter to reach the public. “He deeply believes in public protest; he deeply believes in standing up for what’s right.”
“He also believes, like the majority of protestors, in peaceful congregation. Nothing about that is changing.”
Porter is currently working on another documentary about Pete Souza, the photojournalist who took thousands of photos in the Obama White House. She sees that project as perhaps an antidote to the current moment.
“Work is how I work through complicated feelings about what’s happening. So all of this is quite motivating,” she said, adding that the pandemic has necessarily forced her to improvise in the editing bay as in-person interviews are currently impossible.
“We documentary people are hearty stock,” Porter said. “We don’t have the luxury of big budgets and opportunities. And so I think I’m working smarter at this time.”
Porter’s optimism is reflected in her film, which she believes tells a positive story of Lewis’s career in activism and Congress over more than a half-century. She hopes that people who see her documentary will come out feeling a bit more hopeful.
“Mr. Lewis said to me so many times during filming … that over time, you have to look at what we’ve accomplished as well as where we want to go. I hope people will feel reassured that this moment is temporary, and that we can hopefully make something of it that is better for all people.”
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” will be available in theaters and streaming beginning July 3rd.