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Wonderfully American: Dawn Porter on John Lewis: Good Trouble

Few directors offer as much insight into the battle for equal rights as Dawn Porter. Her newest film, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” accompanies the famed Civil Rights activist and Congressman as he recounts his childhood, early career, and still-fervent drive to enact change. Given her past works documenting African-American public defenders fighting against a prejudiced southern legal system in “Gideon’s Army,” and her black and white expose of segregation during the 1950s and '60s, “Spies of Mississippi,” the pairing is perfect.  

Porter's documentary earns the eponymous use of Mr. Lewis’ ethical saying, “You must find a way to get in ... good trouble, necessary trouble,” by allowing him to steer the conversation. Throughout Porter's film, Mr. Lewis often narrates the footage of his marches and speeches while they play on the large screens strategically placed around him. During these moments, Porter touchingly catches the disbelief in Mr. Lewis’ eyes as he fondly thinks upon the non-violent ethos that compelled his rise from the humble confines of Troy, Alabama to a civil rights firebrand battling the inflictors of trauma and violence. And though the Congressman is now battling stage IV pancreatic cancer, “Good Trouble” never resembles an elegy. Instead, the film thoughtfully celebrates the life of this iconic activist and legislator. 

I talked with Porter about the challenges of documenting Mr. Lewis’ journey and the trickiness of humanizing a legend. 

I know a lot of people are going to say that “Good Trouble” is perfectly timed to what's happening right now [the Black Lives Matter movement]. But I think the film would have been timely in any year. Could you speak more on that?

Absolutely. I feel that very strongly. In making the film, I was really interested in the fascinating arc of John Lewis’ life. And it was like, “Where do old activists go?” In this case, it was to Congress. And just the awe-inspiring breadth of that is wonderful and wonderfully American. I feel like what John Lewis shows us is a transcendent philosophy. He’s chosen how he wants to live, and he is intentional in that. It's like that Mark Twain quote, “Freedom ain’t a place you float to find.” Freedom is an ongoing effort you have to actively work for. And he accepts that. And so people ask, “He isn’t bitter; he isn't hostile?” No. He sees how much has changed, and I think it still takes his breath away. But that doesn't mean you stop. That means you’re ever improving. So look, none of us could have imagined that this moment would be this moment, that we would have this kind of worldwide reckoning with racism. But I know that John Lewis is thrilled about it. He's always lived this way, and now he feels like we've all joined him. So, I agree with you a hundred percent.

And then thinking about John Lewis as a Civil Rights Activist and Congressman, while the difference between activist and politician has always been seen as two different roles. But the film very much shows how John Lewis merged those two roles into just being John Lewis.

Yeah. And I think we need both to make lasting change. We need the activists outside pressing, pressing, pressing, and pushing and pushing; but we also need the legislators to really tackle and dismantle systems that discriminate. And it's in the conversation among-and-between those different sides, that hopefully what emerges is something that can really help people. 

John Lewis, as an activist, is only as effective as the laws that result from the activism. 

I think that he understands that, and I love seeing how he matured and grew and moved through his life to do different forms of activism. It's not an accident that Nancy Pelosi calls him “the conscience of the Congress.” But while he is the conscience, we also included a section that shows how many bills he has written or co-authored or co-sponsored.

One of the visual aspects of "Good Trouble" that I found interesting was the visual conceit of Mr. Lewis being surrounded by screens playing footage of the Civil Rights era and in his protests. It's almost like he’s watching his life flash before his eyes. And I was wondering where that idea was born from.

That was exactly the idea. You are like acing this exam! The John Lewis movie exam. [laughs]  

So we were in Alabama, and every year he does what he calls a “pilgrimage” back to the Selma bridge, which also includes a visit to Bryan Stevenson’s Civil Rights museum in Alabama. And while we were there, he was watching a video installation about himself. And there was a teenager who was on a high school trip. Can you imagine going to the museum and seeing John Lewis right there next to you, watching? [laughs] 

And Mr. Lewis was watching, and he was shaking his head. He said, “Sometimes I can't believe that was me.” Then he turns to this kid, and he starts telling a story about that day that I had never heard. 

Oftentimes, Mr. Lewis is asked about these iconic moments, and I wanted to see if I could get some more texture out of those moments. I said to my producer, “Can we recreate that? Could we put him in the middle of that kind of video art installation?” So we rented a theater in Washington, DC, the Arena Stage, and we constructed three large screens. Then we made several short archive films. No commentary, just archives about him. I sat him in the middle, and we had five cameras, and we just watched him to take it in and respond to it. Then I would ask him questions. From there, the idea cinematically came to me, that John Lewis should tell his own story.

That's why I have him looking right at the camera and engaging you. So you can't look anywhere else. You've got to hear his words, and where he puts the emphasis. So it was not my choice. It was his choice. I felt like that was a way to really allow him to take some ownership of his story. That was a very important element. So that was his “master” interview, and he was such a trooper. He sat on that stool all day and watched footage. One of the great gifts was him saying he was seeing things he had never seen before. 

It was a really great day of filming in my career. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before.

And considering that he was seeing some of the footage for the first time, emotionally, what was that day like for you watching it and for him going through it?

It was incredibly emotional. Most of us are multitaskers and Mr. Lewis is no exception. He's a legislator, he's a brother, he has a lot going on. I think for any documentary filmmaker, one of your challenges is figuring out what kind of environment is the most conducive to your subject. What allows them to really tell the story that they want to tell. And so for him, removing his home, his office—removing all the external distractions—I think allowed both of us to really go deeper into that time period. I think we all felt it. 

I also think, emotionally for me, I felt a lot of satisfaction. I felt like what he was seeing is what the rest of us see. That when people come up to him, and they're so emotional, and they really want him to know how much he means to them, I wanted him to see: this is what you did.

There was a big crew, and there were a lot of people, and I felt like all of us in the room had that moment. Then we had dinner that night, the whole team, and he came with us to this Mexican restaurant and stayed with us for two hours. It was profound. It was a great day. 

With the clips you put together for him, where did you accumulate the footage from?

I worked with this great archivist named Rich Remsberg, and he had looked at like a hundred different sources for footage. He went to people's personal collections, to little known museums, just everywhere. So we combed through all of that footage, looking for home movies, those kinds of things.

I loved how much you humanized John Lewis beyond being a Civil Rights icon. How important was it for you to take him out of the context of the John Lewis legend?

That was crucially important for me. I didn't want John Lewis to be this man in a history book that you put on a shelf. I really wanted to make the point that he is a living, active, sentient being who’s still working. Part of that, as a Black filmmaker, I'm very conscious of the magical Negro trope. Because what it really does, it dehumanizes you. It says that you are not a person with feelings and the whole canopy of human emotions. I really wanted to bring him into the world and show things that influenced him—him being a child and him being with his family. But that he also loves art, he loves music, he loves to dance. If you see that, then I feel like it makes him more approachable. And for me, it made me think, “Okay, he's just a person.” 

Now, maybe I'm not going to be on that bridge. Me personally, I am a coward. I am not going to be in the middle of any great movement, but what are the things that I can do to be a part of the beloved community? Instead of saying “That’s too hard,” focus on what I can do. I think making him a person helps you do that.

You delve into his personal life, and that's part of humanizing Mr. Lewis, however I noticed that the film doesn't really cover his unfortunate cancer diagnosis. What drove that decision?

We were done before he was diagnosed. And of course the news was just devastating, especially after having spent so much time with him. So, I believe that we found that out in December, and we were already filming. And I can't remember the exact time that he started treatment, but he kind of went into treatment very quickly. 

The one thing I will say about that, is I was able to fly to DC and show him the film and watch it with him. That was really special, really meaningful. We just had a lot of fun. He laughed and he cried. He kept saying, “It's so powerful, so powerful.” And Mike [Collins] kept saying, “No, your life is so powerful.” That was really special. 

There's one other thing I wanted to call your attention to, that's very important to me in this film. It’s the music. I worked with Tamar-kali, who was the composer for “Mudbound,” and I had asked her to write a modern spiritual. And I think she really delivered that. She really leaned into a Black tradition, and used a lot of components from so many different cultural sources. So I just really love the score from this film, and wanted to mention that as one of my favorite parts.

I definitely keyed into it. I didn't read the song credits closely enough to notice that, but the song sounds incredibly vintage and classic.

Yeah. She sings on it, she researched it. She was like, “the field hollers.” I was like, “I don’t know what a field holler is.” She was like, “this is a field holler.” And I just love her creativity here, and it creates a layering of Blackness, and black love, and history that I feel like is really important to the movie.

"Good Trouble" will be available on VOD and in virtual cinemas starting Friday, July 3.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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