When Dawn Porter’s assistant handed her a pen and beamed with pride as she said, “Here’s one of those pens you like!,” Porter asked herself, Have I become a person who has a favorite office supply? She decided then to walk away from her job as a lawyer at ABC News and pursue filmmaking with a purpose. Making images about black life that differed from those dominating film and television became her calling.
“With shows like Cops on television, I felt that America was only seeing black Americans involved with vice,” says Porter, 54. She wanted to capture what she knew of the black community with a fresh, nuanced lens. Porter’s first film, which debuted at Sundance and was nominated for an Emmy, is a documentary about young black public defenders in the South. “Gideon’s Army shows black lawyers working in the criminal-justice system to free innocent people whilst battling discrimination within it,” Porter says. The 2013 film exposes one of the many forms of systemic racism that exist in our country: young black men, whether innocent or guilty, are imprisoned at a disproportionate rate, with the vast majority unable to afford an attorney or even bail.
Porter is also interested in examining the lesser-known aspects of black civil rights. “This history is so rich and extensive that just learning about the Montgomery bus boycott doesn’t do it justice,” she says. “Unsung heroes such as Medgar Evers need to be recognized for the tremendous work they did in securing black civil rights.” Her 2014 film, Spies of Mississippi, takes as its focus the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secret, state-funded agency which operated from 1956 to 1977. Directed by the governors of Mississippi, and largely omitted from history textbooks, the agency helped to uphold racial segregation in the state. “The depths to which southern racists would go to prevent black people from being able to vote is unfathomable,” Porter says, “and the courage that Freedom Riders demonstrated in going to the South with the threat of death as a near-constant thought was stunning.”
One of those Freedom Riders was Congressman John Lewis, the subject of her new film, John Lewis: Good Trouble. Debuting July 3 from Magnolia Pictures, it chronicles Lewis’s long-standing fight for civil and voting rights, gun control, and health-care reform. To make the film, Porter followed Lewis, who announced in December that he has pancreatic cancer, for a year, and also interviewed Nancy Pelosi, Jim Clyburn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, and others. The documentary’s release amid worldwide protests spearheaded by youth is fitting: “[Lewis] was 19 when he started the sit-ins,” says Porter. “So don’t let anyone tell you that teenagers can’t save the world.”
Even in these dark times, Porter was buoyed by Lewis’s leadership. “Making the documentary under the current administration was extremely difficult. As I was interviewing [the congressman], the president was dismantling everything John Lewis had risked his life for,” she says. “And yet he is still positive and hopeful and believes in government. But mostly he believes in people. And so, if John Lewis—who literally almost died for democracy—can still be hopeful, I can still be hopeful.”
Bijah LaFollette is a student living in New York City