"Documenting a Champion of Social Justice" SwatTalk
with Dawn Porter '88, filmmaker and producer
Recorded on Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Dawn Porter: Hello, everybody. Thank you so much for joining us tonight. I love Swarthmore College and I'm thrilled and honored to be invited here. I will say, I'm on Martha's Vineyard and I'm actually at a friend's home and the internet is a little sketchy. So if, if I freeze up too much, I might just stop the video, but I'll still be here. I'll still be here with you and you are Swatties, so you have imagination. And this is what I look like. So I just want to thank Ayanna and Lisa for doing so much work to put this together. I love seeing you, you young people doing such good work and I'm so proud of you and I'm so happy to be here. So I thought I would talk first about how the film came to be, and then what it was like to be with the congressman, but also about what I saw as the resonance of the film for where we are today. So, and then I know Ayanna has some questions, but really, I would love for this to be an interactive, engaging kind of conversation. But before I get started, I will say that I am about to send my son, Eli, he's Swarthmore class of 2024, joining in a very strange time, but thrilled to be joining, nonetheless.
Ayanna Johnson: Awesome.
Dawn: Yeah, yeah, it's exciting. We got our, no, I just paid the first tuition. So it's real, he's really going.
Ayanna: Wow. So exciting. He'll love it.
Dawn: I hope so, I hope so. So he was really thrilled. So I have just finished a series called "Bobby Kennedy for President." It was a four-part series for Netflix and it really was about Bobby Kennedy's evolution into the civil rights kind of activist and warrior that he became. And one of the things I had discussed with Netflix and actually, what I pitched to them is the discussion about how so many black... Kennedy. So it's really part of the story that I needed to, that I was really interested in is how he changed. How does a leader change and evolve and what influences him to change? And that's actually a theme, I feel like I've been discussing in a lot of my work is what, so many of us care deeply about issues, but that doesn't mean we kind of leave ourself... And go out on the front lines and what is it that inspires people to actually leave the comfort of their lives and go out and work on behalf of others? So in researching the Bobby Kennedy story, we interviewed Congressman Lewis, and he told us the story that he had, as a very young man, volunteered for Bobby Kennedy's 1968 campaign. And one of the things that he did is he organized a rally in Indianapolis for Bobby Kennedy to speak to an African-American audience. It was also the night that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. And so, Bobby Kennedy became the person who told that audience that Dr. King had died. And you can hear the audio, you can hear Bobby Kennedy saying, "Do they know," and his aid saying no. So a number of Kennedy's aides said it would be too dangerous for him to speak, that there would be rioting and it would be dangerous. And a very young John Lewis said, "You must speak to them, you must tell them that they are heard, that their frustration is real." And so Bobby Kennedy did speak that night, and it's well regarded as one of his most emotional, one of his best speeches. It's thought of as the only time that, in a public rally, that he spoke about his brother's death, which had catapulted him into a deep depression. And one of the things that I was really moved by was Indianapolis is one of the only cities that did not burn that night. And I think that it was really John Lewis' influence on Bobby Kennedy saying, you know, advising him to speak to the crowd that contributed to that result. So when I heard that story from John Lewis, I realized it was a story I'd never heard. I didn't realize how deeply he was involved with Kennedy. I hadn't read his book at that point. And I thought that there are so many more stories that the congressman would have to share. And I was interested in that. So fast forward, we released the Bobby Kennedy series and CNN came to me and asked if I would be interested in a film about John Lewis. And I, that said, yes, and of course, just because he is who he is, but also, because it was a rare opportunity as a filmmaker to do a film that dealt with the same subject, but with a different lens. So I had dealt, you know, watched all of the civil rights archives and archives about Bobby Kennedy. And so, I was watching that same time period, but now it was like through the eyes of John Lewis rather than through the eyes of a white senator with a lot of money. So, you know, in a lot of ways, I feel like that's a very Swarthmorian thing to do, is work for two and a half years on from one perspective and then spend another two years researching and looking at the exact same time period and the exact same footage, but with a different vantage point. And so I really, really loved the opportunity to dig into his story. With every film that I do, I try and have an animating principle, a through-line question. And I think that that's particularly important when you're doing films about big characters, about people who are well known, because there's so many different directions that you could go in discussing their lives, that you have to pick a through-line, you have to pick, you know, kind of the touchstone that you wanna explore. And with John Lewis, it really was this question of what was his inspiration and how he came to see, to believe so deeply in something that he did not see. You know, when we say child, someone's a child of sharecroppers, I don't know that we pause enough to think about what that means. These were really subsistence farmers, who were living in very, very meek circumstances where later, of all, the children, he came from a very large family, was needed to farm to, to provide food and to provide housing for the family. And, you know, so when he, when John Lewis talks about how his family, you know, where they grew up and what they did and that he ran away, you know, he would wait for the school bus. During farming season, his parents needed all of the kids to pick vegetables, pick, you know, cotton too. And John Lewis really wanted to go to school and he would hide underneath his porch and wait for the school bus and then run to it. And I just thought like, that's one generation away where someone is really, really trying so deeply. And so, you know, with so much passion to go to school and school really influenced him. So what we set about to do, one of my kind of goals was to bring him into the present. You know, many people know about the congressman and his civil rights activity. We know about him on the bridge, or maybe you know that he was involved in the Freedom Rides. Very few people have really focused on the fact that he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. And so, revisiting that footage with him really allowed me to, you know, kind of revisit his history, but then to think about how all of those early experiences formed, allowed him to become the congressman and the person that he was as a legislator. So, that was, so that is kinda how I came to the let's go back and forth in time and tell his story, not in a linear way, but let's match up those iconic moments with his present-day work, which is really so broad and so vast, you know, John Lewis was a true progressive. So he was for climate change legislation, for LGBTQ rights. He always... LGBTQ rights.
Ayanna: I think we... That your video cut out for a second. So what you said after he would always champion LGBTQ rights, if you could.
Dawn: So very much a champion of women's rights. He marched at, you know, during the Women's March. So I wanted to broaden the knowledge and understanding of the congressman's work and his life. So we filmed for a year. He was a joy to be with. We very quickly recognized that we had to build in extra time when, with him in public, because so many people would approach him and he would greet every single person who approached him. And that's just, you know, who he was. When we were filming, we often had a hard time keeping up with him. This is a very energetic, strong, powerful man. And so, you know, when he was diagnosed with cancer, it was a shock and it was a blow. I mean, it was just kind of devastating. So I was, however, able to go, we finished the film in December. I was able to go and show it to him. I went to his home and I didn't know what to expect because he had been diagnosed, I knew he was getting chemotherapy and he answered the door like he always did, and he was dressed up and he looked great, and we watched the film together. So, you know, in his living room and he kept saying, "It's so powerful, it's so powerful," You know, and I said, "Congressman, your life is powerful." And then we just sat for another couple hours just chatting. So I did not, that was Valentine's Day this year. And I didn't realize that was the last time I would see him in person. So, it's definitely bittersweet. He was thrilled, thrilled with the reception of the film. He, I was on Joy Reid Show on MSNBC, and he sent me a picture with him doing thumbs up. He just, yeah, he just was marvelously thrilled. So it was definitely, you know, one of the joys of my life to do this project and spend so much time with him and, you know, hopefully to... dismantling racism, one of the things I kept thinking about is how we use, when we describe people and their accomplishments, and for John Lewis, often he's described as being really brave, which he certainly was, but he was also really strategic. And I really wanted people to focus on his intelligence. You don't help to desegregate Nashville, which has been segregated for a hundred years without having a strategy. They did not just appear on that bridge. There was a lot of planning and effort and John Lewis was certainly part of that planning. So, you know, those are some of the things I think about as a filmmaker, and when, you know, there's a large conversation happening about who should tell a story, who's privileged to tell a story. I don't believe that you have to be the same race as a person, but I do believe... Aware of your limitations, and so, that's whether you're a different race or economic background, different region of the country or an international story, you do need to have some grounding in the subject matter and how you get that is, you know, there are a number of ways to get that, you can bring other people in, certainly you can study, but I do think, I do think we need to address the question of authorship and, who's telling whose story. So I think I'll leave it there. Those are some of the highlights. I'm happy to answer anything about this film or about any of my other work. So that's all.
Ayanna: Thank you. I just wanted to let everyone know that we are recording. So thank you, Dawn, for letting us record, especially for folks who weren't able to join live. I had so many thoughts and so many questions. So as moderator, I'm gonna take moderator's privilege and ask some of my questions.
Dawn: You did the work to set it up. So you get all your questions answered.
Ayanna: So well, you actually answered my first one 'cause I really wanted to know, I read your Washington Post article about John Lewis, and I really wanted to know what he told you when he watched the film. But I didn't realize that you were there watching it with him. What has his family, what has been his family's reception and also his staff? I mean, his staff really was like family to him and that part of the movie that really resonated with me who he was as a person and just so welcoming, so open and so giving.
Dawn: Yeah, so we did a screening right after I showed the movie to him, I flew to Georgia and we did a screening for friends and family. And so a number of his siblings were there and they just loved it. I mean, you know, I think they could tell the love with which the film was made. I think also they appreciated being asked about how his activities impacted their family, but also, I think they wanted to express, particularly his sisters and his brother Grant, they wanted to express how proud they were of him, even though they were terrified. And you know, you have to think that the congressman grew up in the time of Emmett Till, so the dangers of even looking at a white person, let alone challenging them were extremely real. These were not, you know, abstract possibilities. So their fears were quite justified, but so was their pride. And they wanted to express that both things were possible simultaneously.
Ayanna: Yeah. I think that came through really clearly in the film, just how proud they were, but like any family member would be if you had a family member in the fight, and then, especially during that time, were very afraid because you knew people where it went a different way.
Dawn: That's right. You could see, you know, I don't... We gathered in his family home and you know, you can see his brother like wiping a tear away, you know, even though it was 50 years ago, it's still that kind of resonant with them.
Ayanna: It did, it did. We are getting a lot of questions. So I will ask one of the questions. Let's see. So, hmm. Well, maybe we're not ready for those yet. But I think one thing that really came through was obviously what he has done and I loved how you went back and forth between the present day and the past. But I think sort of an underlying theme was just how much he has mentored the next generation of political leaders. And so, I'd love for you to talk a little bit more about his relationships with Stacey Abrams, and obviously, President Obama and you know, what that like witnessing those interactions?
Dawn: You know, it was really interesting. The, kind of, I put them in the new generation. So Representative Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, they were very eager to relay to me what his mentorship to them meant. And if you think about it, John Lewis was the radical of his time. The NAACP and the traditional civil rights organizations did not support the Freedom Rides. They thought they were too dangerous. They did not support the lunch counter sit-ins for the same reason, and, you know, he tells a story of Thurgood Marshall saying to him, "You all are just getting your heads beat in, just give me a case," and that was very successful. But I think what John Lewis and the other activists realized is you needed both. You needed that public pressure and the weapon of litigation that Thurgood Marshall and the other lawyers provided. So John Lewis had a very strong kind of feeling of kinship with the quote-unquote "squad," you know, radicals, because that is who he was, but he also had the experience of coming from the outside and then moving to be a legislator. So there are different rules, right? When you're the outside agitator, you're knocking on the door and demanding change. When you're at the legislator, there's some knocking and pushing, but there's also some compromise that you have to do in order to get anything done. You are now, have the ability to write the laws. And so he went to each of them and invited them for lunch and had those conversations about what, how their role was going to shift, 'cause he had been through that very transition himself. And I think that's why they all wanted to express, how important his leadership was to them. And you know, particularly Ayanna Pressley, I really was moved by her kind of testimony, but all of them, and then, you know, when I think of Ilhan Omar saying this country had a hard time loving people like John Lewis, but he loved it, you know.
Ayanna: He loved it anyways. Yeah.
Dawn: But anyway, and that really encapsulates who he was. That was the type of love and type of, you know, commitment to nonviolence that he was after, so.
Ayanna: Yeah, I think that's exactly true. And that was something I wanted to ask you about sort of his commitment to nonviolence, especially sort of juxtaposed to the protests now and how a number of people feel that those are more radical and not as nonviolent. But one thing I've always felt is, during John Lewis' time, what he was doing was also seen as very radical.
Dawn: That's exactly right. I mean-
Ayanna: People seem to forget that.
Dawn: I think, you know, it's not an accident that he chose his last kind of public picture to be at the Black Lives Matter art installation in Washington, D.C. He really, he was pretty weak at that point, because of pancreatic cancer, but he really, really wanted to be there, and to, and I will say, so his chief of staff called me up and said, "I need to take him there. He's dying to see it, he really wants to see it. And I'm gonna get a photographer," and he sent me three photographers and I was like, oh, this guy is amazing. So, and then I said, "Whatever, you do, make sure he does this, 'cause that is him." And he did it, and it just raced around the internet. So I will humble brag that yes, you know, we did think through those poses, but to me, having studied the congressman, and studied his footage and his speeches and his thoughts, it just said to me, this is the message that he wants to give. I stand here in my power and I am so proud of these people, and what they have accomplished. And I know that I'm handing this torch off to this next generation. Like, that's what that photo says to me.
Ayanna: Yeah, I agree. It was such a powerful photo. So I'll ask some of the questions that have come in, 'cause we're getting a lot and I don't want to hog. So actually just a quick shift, there have been a number of questions, sort of asking about your transition to, from lawyer to filmmaker and whether or not Swarthmore had any sort of impact on your trajectory post-Swarthmore, which obviously, it has, but would love to hear more about that.
Dawn: Sure, yeah. You know, I really wanted to be a lawyer. I was attracted to it for a lot of reasons. One was, I loved my time at Swat. I was a Polysci Philosophy person, Ken Sharpe was my guru. I took ancient political theory.
Ayanna: Me too.
Dawn: And I wrote, yes, I wrote my... My senior thesis paper on Plato's Republic and whether or not he believed that women could really be philosopher kings. So, you know, when you have an academic experience like that, and you just have this love of discovery, I mistakenly thought lawyering would be an academic brain exercising kind of career, which, in some ways it was, but the kind of the heart of inquiry and questioning was missing for me, it became a little bit more about jousting, lawyering, rather than kind of working to solve problems. So I moved to in-house to ABC Television and then to ABC News and I did ethics and standards. And the way that my boss had organized that job was for news reporters to ask, not whether they legally could do something, but whether they ethically should do it. And that, to me was a direct relationship to my time at Swat, where I was feeling like I was really studying how people make ethical decisions and really ask the hard questions about what we should do as good citizens. So, you know, I did that for a number of years. I had both my kids and then, you know, television, I moved to a cable network. Television really took a turn to be kind of reality focused. And I thought, this isn't what I signed up for. And I also thought I wasn't seeing a lot of people that looked like me telling stories about people who look like me. And so, you know, kind of with, if no one's gonna hire you to do it, you do it yourself, you know, which I think is also a very Swarthmorian thing to do, you're just like, I don't care if no one thinks I can do it, I'm just gonna figure it out. So, you know, I spent a year kind of going to conferences and studying what was being funded, and what kinds of films. And I thought that I could do it, and I got a big grant from the Ford Foundation and that's how I did my first film. And then, you know, working steadily ever since. So I encourage you to take up your next career after 40.
Ayanna: Good tips to know. Thank you. Yeah, that's so interesting how your career evolved, but the seeds were always there all along.
Dawn: Yeah, I think you just have to listen to them, so.
Ayanna: Yeah, exactly. So shifting back to the documentary film and Congressman Lewis. So we got a question just now from Jerome Blackman, and his question is, did Congressman Lewis inspire others in his family to vote or participate in the struggle? And one of the moments that really resonated with me was when Henry Louis Gates, Jr. showed him or talked about finding his great-great grandfather's registration card in the late 1880s. And so how did it impact his family?
Dawn: Yeah, his family was not overtly activist, but in their own way, I think his actions inspired them to be bold kind of in their neighborhood. So, you know, his brother is now a trustee at the same university that denied John Lewis admission. His sister became the youngest union representative in San Francisco. And so, she does activism. She's recently retired, but she was the youngest union shop steward, and very, in like a warehouse situation, like very rare for women to do that kind of work. So they are an extremely loving family and religious family. And I think that John Lewis kind of has this aura about him, where they kind of rallied to protect him, in a way. And I think that that is part of their, they did that lovingly and willingly. That's really part of their, part of their mission. Hi, Jerome.
Ayanna: Great. So we had, let's see. So this is an interesting question, because we're Swatties. So did John Lewis speak about Quaker teachings or have influence from Quakers in his studies on non-violence philosophy? We also got emailed a question similar, wondering if John Lewis ever discussed Gandhi's impact on nonviolent protests in the U.S. through the lens of Martin Luther King.
Dawn: Yeah, so the congressman was a religion major and also attended divinity classes. He traveled to Africa, he studied Gandhi. He studied the great philosophers, and I don't remember, it would be impossible for him not to study the Quakers because he did really a thorough job of studying it, not only in university, but also Reverend James Lawson describes John Lewis' activity as the nonviolence movement. The man you saw in the film is giving... the young activists, and doing the role-playing, he was really not only John Lewis's kind of mentor, but he also was the person who helped Martin Luther King Jr. work out his feelings about nonviolence. So John Lewis, like, revered these two men and studied with them and he, you almost can't understand the congressman's passionate activity, unless you understand how he accepted nonviolence as almost part of his religious belief, he was wholly committed to it. And so when he says, "I had to love my enemy," it was like a physical giving over of yourself, very much in that religious tradition of surrendering to something. So when people say, how did he continue to put himself in danger and do all of these things? It's really because of almost that religious fervor.
Ayanna: Mm-hmm. I think you stopped talking? So I'm gonna ask another question. It cut out for a second. So let's talk, you mentioned, and it came through in the film, and you mentioned even in your beginning remarks about the political genius that was John Lewis. And I honestly didn't realize how many major acts and bills and laws that he had sponsored that really changed the face of America, not, obviously, the Voting Rights Act, but everything else. Can you talk a little bit more about his political brilliance and sort of who picks up the mantle now?
Dawn: Yeah. You know, one of the things that was like really joyous to discover was I knew, I always knew that I wanted to do some kind of sequence about his legislative activity, because I felt like people really didn't appreciate or understand, how vast it was. I mean, John Lewis, Violence Against Women Act, LGBTQ rights, climate change was a big thing for him, of course, voting, opposing, asking for gun legislation. So many different, a true, true progressive. So we set about, figure out which bills that he sponsored or co-sponsored, and there were too many. So those were just like the greatest hits that you saw. And then, of course, we set it to Stevie Wonder. So like, just in case you weren't paying attention, that was fun, and that was fun because we had to call Stevie Wonder. And he's like, yeah, my man, John Lewis. Of course you can use that song.
Ayanna: Oh, awesome. Yeah, just so much. And I think that's one thing that-
Dawn: That was fun.
Ayanna: Yeah. Let's see, you've got a bunch of questions, of course. So you mentioned that John Lewis studied in Africa. So I'm gonna ask this question that just came in from John Boyer. So to what extent did John Lewis work with Ron Dellums and the Congressional Black Caucus to pass economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa?
Dawn: You know, I'm not exactly sure, but that would, my guess would be that would be something that would be absolutely in his wheelhouse. He had traveled to Africa. I believe he had traveled to South Africa. He was deeply concerned about international human rights and the causes of not just black people, but any underrepresented people. That was quite, of interest to him. But I don't know that answer. So of course, I've done like 9,000 interviews and you have stumped me, so.
Ayanna: Oh man. I didn't think it was going to be possible. So one fun question that's come in, is there anything that you, I mean, I'm sure there's many, but is there one thing that you found out about John Lewis' story that surprised you?
Dawn: I think the Julian Bond footage was a real surprise. You know, it wasn't something that I remembered, and having the footage of Bryant Gumbel, putting the two men next to each other and having them both be really uncomfortable and having John Lewis have to face, you know, kind of the decision that he made. Like that is why I love documentary, because it's so surprising. You can find these little clues to who people are. And you know, I think also, when we talk about how we describe black leaders, like too often, we deify them, right? We make them into these impossible superhumans and he was just really an ordinary man with a very strong will and determination, and work ethic and ability to kind of see the long game. So he was also really competitive. I mean, he wanted to win. So you can judge his decisions in that circumstance, but then, you know, the second question is, to what extent are we part of that? Because we all revere his leadership and his existence in Congress. I guess the question is what does it take to win? So had he not done that, he might not have won, and he might not have had the legislative career that he had, so I felt like it was just kind of one of those open-ended questions that doesn't require an answer. It's just, I just kinda put it out there for thought. That was, yeah, things you didn't see, Mr. Lewis is a very fun person, with a great sense of humor. So there were a couple of little nods, like he loved, like if he had an opening for a joke, it's kind of like a tennis match. He loved to like volley it back, but he'd always look around and make sure, like, did you get that? Like, that was really funny. He was like down for anything. Like I would say, you know, "Can I come to your house at 8:00 a.m?" And he would say, "Mm-hmm." And I would say like, "Can we go to Troy, Alabama?" And he would say, "Mm-hmm," so he was just really fun to be around and no matter what... like dressed up and he loved to go to Costco, which is like one of my favorite John Lewis fun facts. Like he would be like, there's some muffins here for you all there's, you know, and he liked Harris Teeter in Washington, D.C. So I have a lot of people who've had sightings of the congressman shopping in Harris Teeter.
Ayanna: I never saw him at Harris Teeter, but I did see him, actually at a Black Lives Matter march in like 2016, he just came out of Congress and met up with folks, and as we were walking back down Constitution Avenue, which was probably a highlight of my D.C. time.
Dawn: You know, I did an interview with a young woman who was part of the group organizing the Women's March. And she said, you know, before they had done the Women's March, she said, "We were just a ragtag group of people. And we told all the members of Congress that we were gonna walk from New York City to Washington D.C." And she said, when they arrived, the only person there to meet them was John Lewis, clapping for them and greeting them.
Ayanna: Oh man.
Dawn: And it wasn't a moment for the cameras. It was because he wanted to tell them he was so proud of them. And like that is quintessential Mr. Lewis, just really, very much about others and encouraging them and telling them how much they matter.
Ayanna: Even in his last words to us publicly, he did that.
Ayanna: What did you think when you read his letter in the New York Times?
Dawn: I thought that is so Mr. Lewis, to have the ultimate mic drop, and to know what power his words would have, particularly in death, that he said the same things that he has been saying all of his life, but the man knew how to capture an audience and he had us all, right, because he, and so to have the fortitude to really face death that way, and I know, also, that he planned many moments of his service. So I was just, I was, actually, it was the first time I smiled, like after his death, because it just was like him one last, you know, kind of captivating moment. So I actually found it really comforting. Like when you think like he's still here.
Ayanna: Right. Oh yeah. That's, I just read it, yeah, and it made me empowered more and actually, and it prepared me to be prepared for today. You know, that we, yes, he has left, and yes, a number of our civil rights icons, who I think of as our other founding fathers of this country, really helping to drive it forward, to make America that more perfect union. And it really was sort of that like march, those marching orders. And so was his talk with President Obama.
Ayanna: And some of the other leaders, that was also, I mean, to give of yourself, even in your last moments, it's a true civil servant, a true servant.
Ayanna: So we got a few questions, that I'm sure you figured this might come up. So there were two moments in the movie, where, or documentary, where we sort of see the juxtaposition between different thoughts within the black experience. So between him and Stokely Carmichael or Kwame Ture, and then the next with him and Julian Bond. So we got a number of questions, just asking a little bit more about that, those two sort of instances and what he thought sort of now.
Dawn: I mean, he recognized that there was room for difference of opinion within the movement. And I think one thing that's important to understand is John Lewis never set out to be the leader. That wasn't his goal. He was propelled forward by others who, and so, you know, when there became this call for, Stokely Carmichael kind of pushing more towards more militant, more aggressive, direct action, he just said, that's not for me. That's not who I am. I can't be the leader of that entity. So, but you know, he was really pushed out and I think that it was painful, but I think also it tells you something about the congressman that, you know, he pivoted to kind of a time of thoughtful, so he worked for Jimmy Carter and then he did voter registration with Julian Bond, and I love that footage of the two of them going door to door in Mississippi. He also volunteered for Bobby Kennedy. So it, he just... group and do something different. But I think he always thought that, like emphasizing a quote-unquote "militant philosophy" was not, in the long run, the way for lasting social change. And that was really more than being deposed as the leader. He couldn't put himself fully behind the articulation of leadership philosophy. With Julian Bond, the situation was different. I mean, he and Julian Bond, there was really not a whisper of difference between them policy-wise. They just were both ready for that step at the same time. And so there, you see more of the politician tactician in John Lewis, understanding that if he challenged, Julian Bond to take a drug test, that that would be problematic for Julian Bond. And so, it did cause a rift between them, which they were able to come together about it. I asked him about that nine ways till Sunday. He just, he said, "Well, Julian and I were great friends, and that was a difficult race." And, you know, it's kind of like asking your parents or your grandparents something and you know they're not gonna answer, so I was like, the footage is gonna have to speak for itself. So I kind of let Bryant Gumbel do the, do the answering with the footage, and you know, to his credit, I sat there and next to him while he watched that section, and he just, you know, he just watched it.
Ayanna: Right. It's the past. And it happened. Right. One question that we got that I thought was interesting, I'm sorry I don't know who it's from, but folks wanted to hear how he felt about representing the city of Atlanta. And maybe let's talk a little bit about how he sort of fought back against some recent negative perceptions of what that city was and what his district, who the people were and who they represent.
Dawn: He loved Atlanta, he loved representing the city. He loved the local politics. He, you know, there's like John Lewis Park, there's murals, you know, a testament to him. Constituent Day, he actually loved. He was a real, in a lot of ways, son of the South, and Atlanta provided kind of enough of a taste of home, but also, you know, kind of a big cosmopolitan city. I think he really flourished there because he could exercise his political skill, and Atlanta is very much a city of connections and all of that, but there's also so much Black history in Atlanta, and so I think he really flourished there. I think he really, really, I know, when we would ask to film, like when he would say, "Well, I'll be home," he meant Atlanta. Even though he loved Troy and he loved being there, home was really in... Atlanta. So I think was very proud of the politicians that had come out of the area. And he really, the city kind of bore his stamp... Kind of work was done, you know, to bring kind of resources into his district. So he loved Atlanta.
Ayanna: Yeah, Atlanta's a great city. I love visiting it. So we're, unfortunately, nearing the end of our time. So I want to ask a few sort of wrap up questions. I know a lot of people are curious, what is up next for you in the filmmaking world? And would you be ever interested in doing a sequel, sort of juxtaposing what's happening now and sort of the new political climate and the new progressives in Congress?
Dawn: Possibly. You know, there's a lot more to say about what's coming up and I have a couple of possibly really interesting projects about new, the next generation of leaders, but there are lots of filmmakers who are investigating those questions. And I just really look forward to those films. 'Cause I feel like it's really important to have a multiplicity, excuse me, of voices when you're evaluating history and culture. Sorry, I'm getting my water.
Ayanna: Sure. We've been talking for so long, you've been doing all the talking, so please take a drink of water. So we've got a fun question from Margaret Huang. What was John Lewis's favorite music? We love to see him dance to Pharell's "Happy."
Dawn: That was really... really loved gospel music and he also loved the freedom songs. So he kind of never passed up an opportunity to dance. And, I really appreciated that about him because I think often, you know, when we think about John Lewis, we think of somebody who's really fierce and such a passionate leader, but he was also just a very... regular person. He liked sweets and he liked dance and he loved art. I mean, he was a collector of art and those, you know, those, that's the texture of a life, you know? So he did all these like grand things, but really, he was kind of like a homebody. He really actually loved like the peace and calm of his home.
Ayanna: His home was beautiful. And I loved how you showed some of his unique art pieces. What pieces of art did he have in his house that didn't make it to the film, that you were thought were really unique, if you could describe?
Dawn: Yeah, well, he had a couple. There was a much longer sequence about his art. We had, I actually went, there was a photographer, Danny Lyon's, who was a very noted civil rights photographer who traveled with Mr. Lewis extensively. And we went to Danny Lyon's home, and saw some of his prints. It didn't quite fit, into the movie. We had some... like at one point I had like a kind of fun montage that just totally didn't go. But so, you know, when you're making something, you try a lot of things. And sometimes you're just in the mood for a rocking montage, and then it's like, it doesn't work. So I would like to point out the music in this film was really special. It was, the name of the composer is Tamar-kali, and she did the film for Dee Rees' film, "Mudbound." And I asked her to write a modern spiritual, because I thought John Lewis loved the spirituals and it's so connected to the land and to Black culture. And so Tamar-kali is an African-American woman with Gullah Geechee roots. And she really, she just responded to him as a person and to his connection to the land.
Dawn: And she not only composed all of the songs except for the few popular songs that you hear, but she also used folk music. So she's like, "Oh, you need a field holler." And I was like, yes, I need a field holler, I didn't know... And then she sang, she reinterpreted it. She sang it with some other musicians. So there just was a lot of like lovely artistic expression. So this film was really a joy to make.
Ayanna: Well, it was a beautiful film, and I'm just gonna keep watching it over and over. I pick up something different each time and you can tell just how much work you and your whole team put into it. I know we're at 9:00 and I know we've taken up so much of your time. And I did have one quick question. How did you meet Erica Alexander and how did you guys work together on the film?
Dawn: Erica and her producing partner, so Erica was like a conventional surrogate and she campaigned with Congressman Lewis in 2016. So she had a relationship with his office and they were thinking about a documentary and they asked her to help. And so she literally just called me out of the blue and said, "I'm thinking about this documentary called John Lewis," and at that point, CNN had already approached me and said, did I want to do this? So I said, well, I'm already working on one. You want to do it together?" And so, that's how we met and we just clicked and hit it off right away. She's a very generous artist and was so helpful. She had relationships with so many members of Congress because of her political activity, and relationship with Secretary Clinton and President Bill Clinton. So she secured a lot of interviews for us, much more quickly than if I had to explain what I was doing and who I am and all the rest of it. So she's really fun, we have a great time together. We traveled a lot together and just, she's one of my favorite people. Like I love her. She's just-
Ayanna: Oh, that's so exciting.
Dawn: Yeah, and she's been working her heart out for this movie.
Ayanna: Oh, great. Well, we're sort of at time, I don't know if you had any last thoughts you wanted to give to the audience, and then we will end. It's been so great.
Dawn: Well, first of all, thanks for a great time. Time just flew by, but I know that the congressman, particularly in his last days, was just so moved by seeing so many people in all 50 states and around the world take to the streets and express their outrage at injustice. And I know that it brought him some comfort as he was in his final days of life. And so, I'm proud to come from a college and university that prioritizes ethics and ethical behavior. And so I just couldn't be prouder than to be part of this community. But also for those of you who took place in the march, you were definitely the angels with your wings because it literally gave him joy to see all the people. He just watched it over and over and said, "There's real change, there's real change." So keep it up. These are difficult times, but we're resilient people, aren't we? So.
Ayanna: We are, we are. Well, thank you so much, Dawn. It's been a pleasure talking with you and getting to meet you. And now I have to watch the rest of your films, 'cause they're all so great, but thank you everyone who is out there in the internet world. Thanks for joining us. We are very excited that we were able to pull this together and be able to do this as a Swarthmore alumni community and shine a light on your work, and, of course, on Congressman Lewis. So thank you so much.
Dawn: Oh, I did also want to mention.
Dawn: There's a robust voter campaign attached to the film. So if you haven't seen the film, you can see it on Amazon or iTunes. Those are probably the easiest platforms, but we also have makegoodtrouble.com, which is a way to check your voter registration, but also support nonpartisan, good government people who are just protecting the franchise. So please visit share, and I guess, make good trouble.
Ayanna: Make good trouble. That's what we're gonna do. Thank you so much. And everyone, please go check that out, 'cause voter suppression is real. We need to protect voting rights and we all have a duty to play in that space, I think. So thank you so, so, so much. So that concludes tonight's session. Thanks, everyone, and have a good evening.
Dawn: Thanks, bye