John Lewis Doc Filmmaker Dawn Porter Reacts to Capitol Riots: "This is Harder Without Him"(Guest Column)

Filmmaker Dawn Porter directs Rep. John Lewis on the set of the documentary 'John Lewis: Good Trouble.'
Ben Arnon

Filmmaker Dawn Porter directs Rep. John Lewis on the set of the documentary 'John Lewis: Good Trouble.'

The veteran documentary filmmaker of 'John Lewis: Good Trouble' reflects on the lessons she learned from the late congressman and civil rights activist in processing the political events of the past week: "He told me that if I let anger overwhelm me, I was the person who lost the most. That if I stopped loving my country, I was the person who would experience an incalculable loss."

Last Wednesday afternoon, I was working at my desk when my 19-year-old son came out of his room. "Are you watching?" he asked me. I wasn’t, so I didn’t know that a swarm of violent protestors had breached the walls of the Capitol and were storming throughout the building.

I’d been there many times in my life, first as an intern for Congressman Al Swift, who in 1993 introduced the motor voter law that allowed voters to register at DMVs; and then as a young lawyer, where I would walk from my house across the grounds to sit in at Congressional hearings. The last time I was in that building was to film the swearing-in of the 116th Congress for my documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble.

My Black son, who’d just voted in his first election, grew up hearing all my stories about the greatness of American democracy. Trump’s extremist supporters, I’d assured him, did not comprise the majority of the population. Now he was telling me that the Capitol was on fire, with disbelief in his eyes.

I canceled the rest of my afternoon, feeling whiplashed. It was just hours before that I’d been jubilant that Georgia voters, including those from John Lewis’ district, had elected two Democratic U.S. Senators. When the Georgia runoff results were announced early Wednesday morning, I’d called Mr. Lewis’ favorite staffer from his district office, who I knew was also wishing the congressman could be here to see this day.

Only a few hours later, I was grateful that he was spared. The mob vandalized the offices of the House leadership, and when they reached a memorial to John Lewis erected outside of Congressman Steny Hoyer’s office, they vandalized that too. When you destroy the tribute to an 80-year-old man who spent his life fighting calling for peace and rights for all Americans, you are challenging much more than the results of an election.

As we learned more about the violence at the Capitol, I was missing Mr. Lewis' voice even more. I’d just spent a year following and filming with him, his colleagues and staff. Working on the film was a refuge from what was happening in America. I felt the cruelty of the Trump administration acutely. The idea that America had elected a narcissistic bigot bent on exploiting the baser nature of millions of Americans was still somehow incomprehensible. Gutting civil rights protections, separating children from their parents and then housing them in cages, banning citizens from Muslim countries—it was all too much. So when the opportunity arose to make a feature documentary about Congressman Lewis, I literally jumped at the chance. I wanted to live in a world where I knew the ending would be happy no matter how dark it appeared at times.

If you know John Lewis' story, you may find it surprising that I’d take refuge in a story of a man beaten for demanding he be treated respectfully. But what I’d come to know is that John Lewis, despite all that he’d seen, all that he’d experienced, had somehow found a way to continue loving America. And I desperately did not want to lose love for my country. I wanted to share his faith.

We traveled to his hometown of Troy, Ala., where he sat with his high school classmates under a shade tree on the Lewis homestead, land that had been purchased by his sharecropper parents for a few hundred dollars. The family still owns this land, to their great pride. One by one, Mr. Lewis’ brothers and sisters told me childhood stories about how they struggled to balance farm obligations with the desire to go to school, even with its outdated books and inferior supplies (all while they watched buses filled with white children go to well-funded, modern facilities). They spoke to me slowly so I could take it all in. They wanted me to understand. They wanted to be sure I knew that John Lewis risked everything not only for himself but for them and by extension for me. They told me how, after he left for college in Nashville and became a civil rights activist, they would turn on the radio and listen for his name, praying not only for his success but for his safety. I shudder now to think that the spirit of the same mobs he faced on the Pettus Bridge in Selma decades ago was present in the mob of people who breached the Capitol last week.

I have said many times that John Robert Lewis was one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met. So many people have asked me about the source of that optimism, thinking that he would have every right to be bitter and angry after being beaten, hospitalized and seeing so many of his friends and colleagues killed as they pressed America to make good on its promise of equality. I can only tell you what he told me: He had a deep faith in God and he had something more. John Lewis believed with certainty and confidence that most people are fundamentally good. He assumed that the better nature of the majority would crush the bitterness of the few.

Whenever I would express to him my sadness or anger about yet another tragedy, he would listen and thoughtfully shake his head. When I expressed anger at the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Muslim ban, he pointed to the need for Congress to strengthen laws. When I expressed horror at the murder of all too many Black people just living their lives, he would say, "That’s why you have to fight." He told me that if I let anger overwhelm me, I was the person who lost the most and that if I stopped loving my country, I was the person who would experience an incalculable loss.

For all his fundamental optimism, he did worry. One Saturday morning in 2018, as we filmed him undergoing his ritual of reading the national newspapers, he looked straight at me and told me he feared our democracy would be lost. He thought for a moment and then seemed to shake his head silently as if he was steeling himself for the tasks ahead.

When we finished the film, I flew to Washington, D.C. to show it to Mr. Lewis. By then he’d been diagnosed with cancer, a diagnosis that shocked us all. I hadn’t seen him for several months as we shifted from filming to editing. On Valentine’s Day 2020, I knocked on the Congressman’s door. I was apprehensive, not certain of his health. He answered the door dressed nattily in his trademark blue trousers with a sweater and cuffed shirt. He gave me a big smile, clearly enjoying that he had surprised me once more.  We watched the film together on my laptop. "It’s so powerful, so powerful," he kept saying, to which I replied, "Congressman, it’s your life that is powerful." After screening the film through laughter and tears, we had a visit, talking about politics and the weather and everything but cancer that was sapping his strength. I hugged him goodbye, not knowing it was the last time I’d see him.

Soon after, as Mr. Lewis' cancer advanced, the country would experience the great challenge of the pandemic, and then the fallout over the murder of George Floyd. I felt the anger rise within me, and I thought to myself: What would John Lewis do? I knew the answer instinctively. He would be sad and he would rise to fight another day. He was thrilled to see people in all 50 states and around the world take to the streets in protest of Mr. Floyd’s untimely death. This response is all he’d ever asked for as a reward for his decades of service. He’d only asked that people speak up, speak out and not be silent about discrimination.

Just before Mr. Lewis decided to go home to Atlanta to be surrounded by the people and things he loved, including pictures of his beloved wife, he made one last pilgrimage. He’d kept abreast of the news, and when the mayor of D.C. commissioned a large Black Lives Matter art installation, he decided he wanted to see it. His chief of staff called me and we talked through possible photographers to capture his visit. The photos are vintage John Lewis: proud, strong and confident.

This is harder without him. In past years we could count on the steady presence of John Robert Lewis pointing the way to a better tomorrow; I thought of that as I watched so-called Patriots defame our Capitol. If you’ve been there, you know what a beautiful physical space it is. It is a living testament to the promise of democracy and equality. I no longer take for granted that the son of Alabama sharecroppers would come to chair a powerful committee in Congress. I no longer take for granted his presence at the Capitol, or my own. As I looked into my son’s eyes and considered the America he was seeing, I tried to ground myself in Mr. Lewis' optimism and faith. I resolve to speak up and speak out and will try very hard not to become bitter or hostile. I am keeping my eyes on the Prize in his memory and hoping for the strength to make him proud.

In 2020 Dawn Porter directed and produced two documentaries: Magnolia and Participant Media's John Lewis: Good Trouble, about the life and work of the late civil rights activist and congressman; and Focus Features' The Way I See It, which explores the Reagan and Obama presidential administrations through the lens of official White House photographer Pete Souza. The former attorney, whose documentary features include Gideon's Army and Trapped, is now in post-production on Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry's docuseries on mental illness and wellness for Apple TV+.