Telling his story
As the 2021 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Week keynote speaker, Porter imparted viewers with the gift of having a deeper understanding of the man behind the legacy of “good trouble.”
Dawn Porter is a litigator-turned-filmmaker and director of documentaries such as “Gideon’s Army,” “The Way I See It,” and of course the premier biographical film, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (available for free streaming to University of Utah students, faculty, staff, and trainees via the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library). Porter had spent comprehensive time with former Congressman John Lewis while collaborating across numerous projects and brought no shortage of memories of him to share, from the casual to the profound. As the 2021 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Week keynote speaker, Porter imparted viewers with the gift of having a deeper understanding of the man behind the legacy of “good trouble.”
“It’s a danger that we think of civil rights as something that happened in the past, and we don’t think about what each of our roles are in preserving rights of all people today.”
Porter’s first encounter with Lewis was during the production of “Gideon’s Army,” a story of three public defenders in the Southern United States. Lewis was brought in to speak to a group of young defenders, and it’s no surprise that the words and passion he shared impacted Porter’s own thoughts on what civil rights encompasses.
“It really was that moment, and this would have been probably in 2011, that I started thinking about civil rights in a different way. I started thinking about it as more than integration of public accommodation, which it certainly is, but just in the protection of your humanity, of your independence, of your ability to assert yourself.”
Following this experience, it was five years later that Porter would be approached by CNN Films to direct a documentary focused solely on Lewis; and with such an iconic and studied subject, Porter was faced with the tall task to decide what story she wanted to tell.
Given Lewis’ well-known contributions to the civil rights movement, Porter’s first objective was to bring the public perception of him and the work to be done back into the present. She observed it as “a danger that we think of civil rights as something that happened in the past, and we don’t think about what each of our roles are in preserving rights of all people today.” Lewis certainly was a prime candidate to aid the shift of this false collective view. As an activist since the age of nineteen, Lewis had evolved, as Porter described, “from being the outsider—the person knocking on the halls of Congress, specifically knocking on the halls of the Presidency and asking for rights—to being a person in the halls of Congress.” In this vein, the film had no shortage of his contemporary legislative activity to spotlight; but Porter was also interested in a deeper story that hadn’t been told. What kind of person was Lewis to have accomplished so much in spite of the extreme violence he had endured alongside his fellow civil rights activists?
“The surprising thing was how calm and satisfied he was with life even though he felt like there was so much more work to do, he was still joyfully doing it. He wasn’t bitter at all.”
From her experiences working with him, Porter described Lewis as humble, first and foremost. “He was such a busy person, but he didn’t make you feel busy when you were around him. He made you feel like you mattered,” she recalled, “he would not give you a recitation of his accomplishments, but he understood that those accomplishments meant something to people of all races, all faiths, that he was important in their lives.” Porter also characterized Lewis as someone with a relentless optimism, explaining how “he assumed that people were welcoming and inclusive and wanted to learn how to get along and do the right thing until he was shown otherwise.” Having studied his life extensively and having been able to share space with Lewis on numerous occasions, Porter perhaps remembers him most for the joy he embodied. “The surprising thing was how calm and satisfied he was with life,” she shared, “even though he felt like there was so much more work to do, he was still joyfully doing it. He wasn’t bitter at all.”
Through Porter’s stories and memories of the former Congressman, it felt all the more right to have focused the 2021 MLK Week theme on Lewis as someone who fully supported the passions of young activists today. Following his passing in July 2020, all were left wondering where to go from here and what Lewis might have thought about the current state of the civil rights movement. Porter offered optimism in this regard by reminding us that “even though his death, for all of us, was traumatic and untimely…he got to experience how much people respected and admired him, but he also got to see something that was the most important to him. He got to see so many people getting in good trouble.”