How John Lewis' Legacy of Good Trouble Can Inspire Activists Today
By John Boone
John Lewis died on July 17, 2020 at the age of 80. This story was reported in late June and was originally published July 3.
There is a well-circulated petition seeking to have the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, renamed after Rep. John Lewis, who marched across it more than 50 years ago in a landmark moment for the civil rights movement.
It would be a fitting testament to the man's legacy, which began before he marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on that Bloody Sunday on the bridge, and continues to this today through his work in Congress. Lewis' early days of activism were documented in Ava DuVernay's drama Selma, in which he was played by Stephan James. Now a documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, fills in the rest of his story.
Director Dawn Porter remembers first learning about Lewis' social activism while studying the civil rights movement in high school. Years later, while making her first film, Gideon's Army, he was invited to speak to the public defenders she'd made the subjects of her documentary. "He told this story about how lawyers had made it possible for him to do the work that he did. How so many lawyers got him out of jail," Porter recalls. "I think that was when he really became a living person for me. And he just stayed with me."
By phone with ET, Porter discussed why John Lewis' message resonates as much as ever amid this time of social unrest and why Good Trouble is a "Trump-free zone."
ET: What were the conversations you had with Mr. Lewis as you set out to make this documentary? Did he have any requests or stipulations on your interviews with him?
Dawn Porter: He really didn't. I think he was ready to tell his story. He knew my other work -- I had just finished the Bobby Kennedy for President series for Netflix that he was in -- so he was game. He was trusting and very cooperative. I would say, like, "Can we go to your home in Troy, Alabama?" And he'd say, "Yes, absolutely." Or, "Can I come over in the morning and just spend the morning with you?" "Yes, absolutely." His staff was a little more like, "What's happening here? What is she asking him to do?"
At this point, he's seen everything, he's done everything. He doesn't do what he doesn't want to do, but he actually never said, "No, I'm not going to do that." In fact, we had a hard time keeping up with him. Because particularly when he was campaigning for Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred in Houston, he just would do event after event after event and just keep going without a break. My crew begged me to skip some things. [Laughs] But there was nothing off the table. There were no stipulations. He didn't ask to see it before we were done. Nothing like that.
You include an interview bit where he speaks to you and says, "Dawn, I'm seeing footage I've never seen before." Do you remember what he was reacting to in that moment?
I don't. What we did is we rented a studio in Washington, D.C., near his home and his office, and we constructed these three large screens and I made him little mini films, just of archival [footage]. Then I asked him to tell me the story of each of those mini films. He seemed to be taking it all in, and it seemed to take him a while to say that. Like, he was thinking about whether he should or not. I think there were quite a few things. The day after the Freedom Rides, there were pictures of the students and you see the bandages on his head, and they're spread out on the floor planning their next day's action. I'm pretty sure he hadn't seen those before. Because no one I've met had seen those before.
You spoke about the outings you had with him. You're with him as he visits his parents' graves, which must have been so moving, and then as he's feeding chickens with his sister. Did you have times behind the camera where you could let these moments sink in, where it felt special or surreal to just be there?
You know what? That actually happened all the time. The other thing that happened -- that we don't show in the film -- is a number of his high school classmates came over and they were remembering being in class together and that he was different. They were talking about teachers they remembered. But they were also talking about how afraid they were. How scary it was. And then they were talking about how proud they were of him. They're in Troy, Alabama, in the reddest of the deep red South, on the land where he decided he was going to fight segregation. It was a beautiful day, and I felt like they were my ancestors. Their memories are so vivid. That was a little surreal.
And he did a lot of listening. It's one thing to point out about Congressman Lewis is he does a lot of listening. [Representative] Ayanna Pressley pointed this out. She's like, "He doesn't waste his words. He speaks up when he has something to say." And I noticed that in public and I noticed that in private. He's a very content person and he doesn't have to speak up all the time. Of all the subjects I've filmed, he's quite happy to just let us poke around and film him. He didn't feel the need to fill up the time with stories or ask what we wanted him to do. He's very comfortable in his own skin.
You have these talking heads from Bill and Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, AOC. What was the reaction when you approached these people? I have to assume they jumped at the chance to be in this.
They really did. AOC and Hillary Clinton, we did on the same day, which was kind of mind-blowing. We went from Queens into Manhattan. They're these two powerful women who are at very different points in their careers and people would say have very different approaches to governing, but there's a similarity there. And John Lewis ties them together. They both appreciate not only what he's done in the past, but what he continues to do. That was really interesting.
Each of the people who appeared, they really understood this was not about them. They wanted to make sure that he knows how they feel about him. In fact, Senator [Cory] Booker, I feel like he called us. He was like, "I really want to be in this." [Laughs] But he had a lot of stories! Those interviews were really fun. Elijah Cummings was the first interview we did. Talking to him, talking to Representative Jim Clyburn in the House, they really made things real. I've interviewed a lot of congressional people and they can be very kind to their colleagues, but these men in particular -- and [Representative] Sheila Jackson Lee -- they really wanted to make me understand how much they really love him. That was why they showed up.
And though we speak of Barack Obama and his relationship with John Lewis, we don't see him in interview. Were there conversations with the Obama camp about him being part of this?
Yes, we did try. He was traveling when we were able to do it. We tried really hard and we couldn't figure out a time to do it. We had a lot of footage of Obama, so as much as I just would like to interview Obama, I knew what he was going to say. [Laughs] At some point, you stop being greedy and realize that there are some things you really must have and some things you really want. That was definitely the interview that got away, for production schedule reasons.
A person we never see is Donald Trump. You include footage of John Lewis rallying against his administration, but there is no footage of Trump. We never hear about any of the things he's said about Mr. Lewis. Was that deliberate?
Yes. I feel like Trump thrives on negative oxygen. We had a couple of scenes where we had him in the Twitter fights with Trump, and then Jessica Congdon, who's a great editor, and I, we were like, "We just don't want to. We just don't want to tarnish the joy of this movie." Because it is a very joyful movie. Like, everybody knows he's out there. So, this shall be a Trump-free zone. [Laughs]
Saying this documentary is timely is the understatement of understatements. You filmed over multiple years, but what we see in this movie -- police brutality, rioting, voter suppression -- you could have filmed this documentary in the past month alone.
There's a whole nother film to be made. Obviously, I've been thinking about that a lot and wishing that those moments were more in our past then so constantly in our present. But I think the benefit of that is things are different today. In response to the George Floyd killing, we had protests not only in all 50 states, but around the world. We have many more representatives in Congress who are people of color, or LGBTQ. People who are minorities and women do have more power. Are we equal? Do we have equal power? Of course not.
But I am with Mr. Lewis on this. There were times when he-who-shall-not-be-named would do something and I would just be so upset and I would talk about it with John Lewis. I would say, "Oh, Mr. Lewis, this happened or that happened." He would just say, "That guy," and then the conversation would turn to something productive that was happening. Over time, I saw that he chooses to focus on what we can do, and I think that that is part of the reason why he's a very peaceful person. He's very purposeful. He's not so much about responding as continuing a path that he's already charted.
One thing you were able to capture by filming it when you did -- that I don't think can be the same anymore -- is that everyone he meets needs to shake his hand, needs to hug him, needs to kiss him or just touch him.
That is exactly right. And it really does take an hour to go through the airport with him. Like, we started budgeting time. We could have done a whole half hour of just people thanking him. And he just takes it in. That's part of the reason I wanted to have him sit and watch those archival pieces, because I was thinking, "Mr. Lewis, I hope you can see what we see. This is why people get emotional when they see you. This is why they want to thank you." I tie it back to that "I'm seeing things I never saw before." I hope what he really saw was what we all see, which is a very giving person who is very proud of what he's accomplished, but not prideful.
I think for many people watching this, it will be a necessary educational experience. What would you recommend as the next documentary or the next book or next film they should search after Good Trouble to continue their learning?
I really think we should revisit Eyes on the Prize, which is the seminal series on PBS that traced so much of Black culture and history. I'd highly recommend I Am Not Your Negro. There's also a fantastic film that didn't get as much attention by Sam Pollard called Slavery by Another Name. It talks about the period after the Civil War ended, during Reconstruction, when Blacks made so much progress and how some of the things that evolved into police codes were targeted at suppressing the former slaves. I think it is encouraging to see so many people reaching out and looking for accurate information about our history, and I would say that there are books that explain to you why we have so many disparities. And I think if you understand that, you understand the frustration and anger. And if we can head off the root causes of it, perhaps then we can head off those negative consequences as well.