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 continued on through his work in government, where he was known as the conscience of the Congress. Lewis died on July 17, 2020, of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was 80.
“America was built by John Lewises,” former President Barack Obama said in his eulogy of Lewis. “He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals. And someday, when we do finish that long journey toward freedom; when we do form a more perfect union — whether it’s years from now, or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries — John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”
Lewis’ early days of activism are dramatized in Ava DuVernay’s drama Selma, in which actor Stephan James portrays a young Lewis. Somewhat fortuitously, a documentary focused on his life and times, titled John Lewis: Good Trouble, was released mere weeks before his death, a portrait of an American hero featuring wide-ranging interviews with Lewis himself.
As we reflect on those great Black history makers this month, ET looks back on an interview with Good Trouble director Dawn Porter, who discussed the man behind the towering figure of the Civil Rights Era and why John Lewis’ message resonates as much as ever amid these times of continued social unrest.
ET: What were the conversations you had with Mr. Lewis as you set out to make this documentary?
Dawn Porter: 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’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, which is a lovely, lighthearted moment. 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 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.
You also see that love in the everyday interactions he has. 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 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.
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.
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