Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'John Lewis: Good Trouble' Documents Civil Rights Leader's Human Side

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, a new documentary highlights one of the most storied careers on Capitol Hill. It's called "John Lewis: Good Trouble."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE")

JOHN LEWIS: If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, we will march through the South - through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: You probably know Congressman Lewis for his prominent role during the civil rights movement and as a thought leader in the House. But this new film shows the congressman's human side, the one we often don't get to see on the news or in history books. We wanted to learn more about the film and also how it relates to the current moment, so we've called on producer-director Dawn Porter, and she's with us now.

Dawn, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAWN PORTER: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to start by asking, how did this film come about? I'm thinking to myself that I've seen plenty of films about the civil rights movement where John Lewis was in it, but I don't remember seeing a film where he was the focus of it. I'm feeling like this is unique. So tell me how this idea came to you and how it came about.

PORTER: Well, that's right. You know, Congressman Lewis' story is often told as part of the civil rights story, which it certainly is. But there have not been that many films that really kind of squarely centered his story. So I was really excited. CNN Films came to me. I had done this series "Bobby Kennedy For President," and Congressman Lewis was one of the stars of the series with the interview he gave about his relationship with Bobby Kennedy. And so they were interested in a film that was just about him.

And I think, you know, we came to him when he - at a time when he was ready to tell his story. You know, I think he is - as he was approaching his 80th birthday, he's always reflective, but I think he was particularly reflective. So this - it was a wonderful timing for both of us to engage on this adventure together.

MARTIN: I think we are familiar with the idea that, you know, activists from other countries - right? - and we see this now, particularly people who stand up against authoritarian regimes in other countries, how their families are often pressured.

PORTER: Yes.

MARTIN: And one of the things that this film makes the point is that, you know, John Lewis didn't act alone. He had parents. He had siblings. They all had...

PORTER: That's right.

MARTIN: ...To support him in this. His family had scraped together the money to buy some land, which was not an easy thing to do. And, you know, they were afraid that they might lose their land because of his activism. But they supported him anyway. And I just - I'm going to - I just want to play that clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE")

LEWIS: We thought about suing the university system of Alabama. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his organization were prepared to support it. I had a discussion with my mother and my father. My father was very, very supportive of the idea. My mother was so afraid that we could lose the land. Our home could be bombed or burned.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about his family.

PORTER: So John Lewis' family as sharecroppers scraped together the money to buy a hundred acres of land, which they still own. But he - you know, his siblings were, first of all, terrified for his safety. But having achieved this remarkable achievement - a very poor family to buy their own land - that was in danger. You know, John Lewis lived in the time of Emmett Till, where a black boy even looking or allegedly looking at a white woman could get you killed.

And so when he went - he initially wrote to Martin Luther King - to Dr. King and asked about - he wanted to try and integrate the local university. And Dr. King said to him, you have to get your parents' permission. Your house could be bombed. You could be killed. All of you could be killed, and you could lose the land that you had worked so hard for. So ultimately, he did not pursue integrating that university. But then he left home in order to pursue his civil rights activity. It was very, very stressful for his family.

And you see - you know, one of the reasons I wanted to speak to his family - because you see in the film, his brother - it still brought tears to his eyes today thinking about how stressful it was for them worrying about their sibling out there in the world. And yet, simultaneously, they were so proud of him, and they did support him. So without his family, I don't think that John Lewis could have been able to do all the things that he did.

MARTIN: I have to say, it's hard even now to watch the footage of what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. And I was really fascinated by Congressman Lewis talking about facing off against Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. I just want to play that clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE")

LEWIS: I lost all sense of fear, really. When you lose your sense of fear, you're free. Too many people lived in fear during those days.

MARTIN: Dawn, I just find myself asking, how did he do it? I mean, you see him standing there, not flinching, facing a row of, you know, heavily armed state troopers putting on their gas masks. How did he do it?

PORTER: For him, it became very clear he did not want to live his life under an unjust system of laws. And he determined that if he would take his last breath in the fight for integration, then so be it. He very clearly understood that he could die doing the things that he did. And yet, he felt that they were so important that he had to try.

So - but he speaks so beautifully about the moment that he lost his fear. And losing your fear of bodily harm, particularly living in the very dangerous, racist brutality of segregation in the South in the 1950s and 1960s - for him, that was freedom. And that is what he always desired.

MARTIN: You spent, let's say, a year reporting this film and spent quite a lot of time with Congressman Lewis, of course. But this was before his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. And how was he doing? How's he doing? And how is he thinking about all this?

PORTER: He has a very serious disease. We did, you know, wrap the film in December, before we knew of his diagnosis. His diagnosis was like a body blow for me. I had spent a - you know, over a year with him. He is, you know, a fighter. He has valiantly, you know, tolerated his treatments really well.

But I will say, just as we saw him make his way to the Black Lives Matter art installation on Black Lives Matter Way, all of these - this protest, all of these people speaking out - we see kids doing HBCU Heroes, good trouble challenge - all of this is thrilling to him. And it really has gratified him. He is so proud that so many people are doing what he always asked, which is to use their voices and to speak up for equality.

So I know that he is just over the moon about all of the activity that he sees. You know, like we all are, he is devastated at the reasons that we still need to protest. But I know how important it is. So every time someone says they're getting into good trouble, it's like another angel gets their wings.

MARTIN: That was Dawn Porter. She is the producer and director of the new documentary "John Lewis: Good Trouble," which is out now. You can find it on Apple and Amazon and other streaming platforms.

Dawn Porter, thank you so much for talking to us today.

PORTER: Thank you so much for having me. It's always such a joy to speak with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROTHER ALI'S "LETTER TO MY COUNTRYMEN INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.