For John Lewis: Good Trouble, documentarian Dawn Porter followed the Georgia congressman for over a year. The result is a film that centers on the power of personal conviction, and the importance for individuals to take a stand. In our interview, Porter spoke about why John Lewis is both an icon and a real, thinking man of both his time, and for all time.
LESLIE COMBEMALE: You had already interviewed John Lewis several times before embarking on Good Trouble. What is the difference between how you perceived him before you began shooting this film and after?
DAWN PORTER: When I’d spoken with him before, it was much more limited, and it was about other people. Here, focusing on his life and his legacy, you approach those interviews differently. One of the things that was really important to me was to fill in the details about the more iconic moments that most of us know. I was interested in what happened in the months and years before he crossed that bridge. What happened in the months and years before he boarded the Freedom Rider Busses, or before he sat down at those lunch counters? The other thing was, I was really focused on showing and illustrating Congressman Lewis is here today, still working and advocating. I was really interested in what happened, and how the historical background influences who he is today in his work.
COMBEMALE: John Lewis is very anchored in his religion, and finds strength in it. This is such a great message right now, given the way some religious leaders are acting, even those who are not religious might find it moving. It drives his decisions, and his compassion and his lack of judgment.
PORTER: His lack of judgment is rooted in his faith. When you think of the fortitude that it takes to actively confront racism, aggression and criminality, one of the things you need is a strong foundation. John Lewis has found that in his religion, in his family and also in his home and his land and the place where he comes from. That’s why we included a trip for him to go back to Alabama. He knows who his people are. That’s a really fortifying thing. He knows he has something to come back to. He’s not an aimless leader. He’s a person who understands everything that was sacrificed to make him who he is. I know his faith is incredibly important. He wanted to be a preacher. He started preaching to the chickens, and in those early days when he was preaching to chickens, he was also preaching to himself. He was working through what his core beliefs are. If you have a core belief in the humanity of all people, it’s a very comforting thing when you see some much conflict and strife around you.
COMBEMALE: I’d like to hear some of your experiences filming John Lewis in public situations. He is so gracious and takes so much time talking to the people he meets.
PORTER: One of the reasons why we have the scene in the airport is because that scene was played out so many times that we were filming with him. There’s something about, particularly now, when things are so shaky, the fact that people just want to express to him how much his work has meant to them. He’s actually a very quiet person in private. He’s a very peaceful person who doesn’t speak unnecessarily. He’s something of an introvert. I think it takes something out of him to acknowledge people but he always does it. I think that’s part of his gift. He understands how his work and he is to so many people. He really tries to let them have that moment, and it’s not about him, it’s about them. It’s saying thank you for recognizing what I’ve done but sharing a human moment with people saying we’re in this together. I saw that over and over. It really made a big impression on me. It so selfless to give that much to other people.
COMBEMALE: You show the strategy of protest, and the strength of planning the organizers of the civil rights movement needed to make change. That’s such a valuable thing to see right now, and it relates to the challenges protesters are facing now.
PORTER: I think right now what we see is a very necessary response. When we add to our response, an intentional plan, that’s when we get change. It’s heartbreaking to see the conflict happening across the country, but it is a necessary response to say that we see what is happening, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough to take to the streets. What is the plan of action to follow now that we have the attention on the problem, what comes next? That’s what John Lewis is about. He’s definitely about what comes next. I know that he supports active expression of indignation. I also know he supports that happening in a peaceful way. The thing about John Lewis is he is not a judgmental person. He takes people as they are and then has chosen his path. I think the question for all of us is, ‘What path are we going to follow?’