In making “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” director Dawn Porter naturally strove to highlight the congressman’s countless accomplishments, but also wanted to show a different side to him — the reserved joyousness that few people got to see.
“I think people were always surprised that the Congressman was very quiet in person,” Porter tells Variety. “He was very funny and charming, but not a person who was seeking the limelight all the time. I wanted to fill in that other piece of his personality.”
Beyond Lewis’ 33 years as a U.S. representative and almost six decades as a civil rights leader — he organized the 1963 March on Washington as well as the 1965 Selma march, and continued advocating for all forms of equality in Congress — Porter says she got to know him as a lover of art and music who sometimes broke out into dance.
This is evident in the documentary’s inclusion of the video of Lewis grooving to “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, which went viral in 2014, as well as a quick tour of his home in Washington, D.C., that showcases the quirky artwork and antiques he owned. For Porter, these moments portray Lewis’ genuine, down-to-earth nature, proving that congressmen can have fun, too.
“I think that sometimes when there are people who have such a big impact on our culture or history, you tend to think of them only in those moments, and not as living, breathing people,” Porter says. “One of the reasons why John Lewis was such a treasure was because he had such a balanced life. Hopefully [the film] gets the message to people: You don’t have to be this towering figure to do great things. You can be a regular person who likes to do silly dances, go to museums, look at paintings and tell funny dad jokes.”
But of course, it’s impossible to separate an iconic figure like Lewis from his honorable work as an advocate for civil rights. Thus, the documentary is peppered with impressive interviews from political figures old and new — Bill and Hillary Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Nancy Pelosi, Cory Booker, Stacey Abrams and Ilhan Omar — all of whom sing his praises and cite him as inspiration. Though incumbent Congress members often have a reputation for looking down on the freshmen, Porter contends that Lewis encouraged and appreciated their tenacity.
“It’s kind of lost on people that John Lewis used to be the outside whippersnapper agitator. In a lot of ways, he was the AOC of his time,” Porter says. “He really felt an affinity with them much more than people focused on. He really recognized what it took to be challenging to authority and he encouraged it. He was never threatened by the new whippersnappers, he really welcomed them and their energy and their ideas.”
Porter also interviewed civil rights leader and U.S. representative Elijah Cummings, who died after production had finished in October 2019. In an extended interview with Cummings, which is exclusive to Variety, he speaks about how Lewis should be remembered — a topic that became all too relevant on July 17, when Lewis died after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
“Sometimes I look at John and say, ‘I wish I could clone him.’ I also think about the idea that there will come a day when John will close his eyes for the very last time,” Cummings said. “And then I think we’ll realize how great he is and how great he was. But I think that so often, what happens is when one is living — and Martin Luther King Jr. is a perfect example — you don’t fully appreciate it.”
But through the making of this documentary, Lewis got a glimpse of that appreciation. Porter and her team finished the film just one month before Lewis’ cancer diagnosis, and she flew to D.C. on Valentine’s Day to make sure that he saw it. Though she wanted him to experience the documentary in theaters, Porter says the way they watched it — on her laptop while eating chocolate — was perfect.
“He got a little teary a couple times. He just kept saying, ‘It’s so powerful. It’s so powerful.’ And I said, ‘Congressman, your life is powerful,'” Porter recalls. “Then we spent more time just talking and being around each other. It was like a cocoon. It was February in Washington, it was very cozy and warm in his house. We really had this lovely afternoon, and that was the last time I saw him in person.”
If there’s one thing that Porter hopes viewers take away from the film, it’s Lewis’ eternal, never-fading hope and optimism.
“His whole life was about envisioning things that were not actually there yet. When he was this young boy, he had to imagine equality and firmly believe that it was possible in order to make it come about,” Porter says. “Particularly in this time, when people are wondering, ‘Is it foolish to be hopeful?’ John Lewis teaches us that it’s not only smart to be hopeful, but it’s necessary, and that we all have a role in making the society that we want to live in.”
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” is now available digitally and on demand.