Colorlines Q&A: Director Dawn Porter on ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’

By Cynthia Greenlee Oct 02, 2020

Dawn Porter was a frustrated lawyer who became a fulfilled documentary filmmaker.

What she couldn’t do as a lawyer, she does in justice-focused filmmaking. Her latest film, “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” explores the life and work of the late civil rights luminary and congressperson who died at age 80 in July.

Her portfolio draws on her lawyerly training and includes 2013’s Emmy-nominated “Gideon’s Army,” which followed three Southern public defenders making sure their clients received the legal representation they couldn’t otherwise afford; “Spies of Mississippi,” which explores how the state systematically surveilled thousands of civil rights activists and ordinary people in the 1950s and 1960s; and “Trapped,” a Sundance winner about abortion providers operating in restrictive political environments.

Colorlines talked briefly to Porter about the film, which will next air on CNN on Saturday, October 3, at 10 p.m. ET/PT. The documentary is also available via CNNgo.

You’ve done many films, but never a biography. Why this, why now?

I didn’t want people to think of Mr. Lewis as just that one moment on [the Edmund Pettus] Bridge. I wanted people to know that people who led the civil rights movement—including many women, many Black women—were strategic. When we think about deconstructing racism, language matters, and I really, really wanted to focus on how much preparation and intentionality there was. He did not just show up on a bridge or show up on a bus [for the Freedom Rides] or at the March on Washington. He dedicated his life to service of principles. Those were some of the better-known results, but this was a very long, intentional process by people who were really strategic and really smart.

I know you made and finished this film before his passing. But I also wondered if the fact that the “Greatest Generation” of African Americans are leaving this earth powered your motivation and made this all the more urgent.

I know you’re a student of history, too, and it was definitely weighing on me that my children might not know a very full John Lewis story. I did a panel with a woman who helped organize the Women’s March. And she watched the film and she said, "I didn’t realize that so much of what we’re doing reflects what the civil rights workers were doing." I had a little sense of that making the movie. As we—activists, leaders—we’re looking to for the future, you see the debates [over and over] again about what is the proper response to violence and discrimination. We’ve had these conversations before, and I’m not saying we need to come to the exact same conclusions, but we should understand our history and understand what worked.

Even though this is a biography of one person, it is a biography of a movement. But it also strikes me, Dawn, that the film is autobiographical. I don’t want to disappear you all as the crew, but John is your co-creator here. 
rnI would say even more than that. I would say he’s the creator. I mean, I made a very deliberate decision to have him front-face to camera, to show him footage and have him respond to it.… So I do not mind one bit being disappeared. There is no more powerful voice than Mr. Lewis’. I wanted to be a conduit so that could come through. I read his books, I watched everything I could find. I read his speeches, congressional floor statements that he had made to put this together. I was thinking about why it was so traumatic for me when he passed, even though I knew he was sick. 
And someone pointed out that when you work on a documentary, you try and think like the person. John Lewis would say he’d make the same speech over and over. And I think that’s because that’s really what he wanted to say. Step up, speak out, use your voice, you are powerful, you are deserving of humane treatment. It’s a human, very simple message. I just wanted to amplify it. 
rnGiven that, how did you avoid hagiography, making this admittedly awesome man into a saint and one-dimensional character?

Part of that is showing process and showing you can admire somebody and not find them without fault. I know some people were made uncomfortable by the footage of him with Julian Bond [whom he ran against and defeated in a contentious race]. That’s also part of his legacy: that he was a competitor. He wanted to win.

But I also think that [desire for sainthood] involves the audience. We want perfect heroes. We don’t always want people. And I think that that is dangerous. I mean, I did a lot of interviews with people. I wanted to know if there was something I didn’t know about Mr. Lewis. What we came up with was this situation with Julian Bond, which I found really fascinating. It was hard sitting next to [Lewis] showing him that footage, when the film was done. To his credit, he never said, “What are you doing? How’s it coming? What’s it going to be?” He didn’t see it until I showed it to him in February. 

We get to see John Lewis outside the halls of power. I kept thinking about #BlackLove during the film.

Critical to understanding is that he had such a lovely, loving relationship with his wife. She was a real partner. He admired her for her mind.… They made a home that was beautiful and full of art and music and companionship. And I think he really needed that in order to be the fierce orator-warrior that we see in public. He needed that calm. And she gave him paintings that were part of his life. They were just one of the many things that Mrs. Lewis gave to him. At his house, I was so struck by his art collection and thinking about the juxtaposition of a boy growing up in very, very modest circumstances—you know, sharecropper family, having and cultivating his beauty and his life. He was always looking for beauty.

Cynthia R. Greenlee is Colorlines’ deputy editorial director.