By Clayton Davis | Variety
Dawn Porter didn’t set out to become a documentary filmmaker. She was as an attorney before she hit the scene with her directorial debut, “Gideon’s Army,” in 2013. In fact, Porter wouldn’t even call herself a “director” until that film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Seven year later, Porter’s prolific contributions to the medium and double documentary feature offerings for 2020 are required viewing.
Kicking off the inaugural episode of Variety‘s new video series “Doc Dreams,” which will dive into the documentary filmmaking process, presented by National Geographic, we sat down with Porter to discuss the journey of bringing her one-two punch projects to life, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and “The Way I See It”.
With two subjects integral to the 2020 presidential election, the director revealed what motivated her to turn the lens on these politically pressing stories.
Porter first became interested in Congressman John Lewis as a subject after interviewing him for the four-part documentary series “Bobby Kennedy for President.” The late civil rights activist, who passed away in July 2020, told a story about organizing a rally for Kennedy on the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered and spoke to the African-American people. “It’s the only time he’s ever talked about his brother’s death in public and it was to that audience,” Porter says about the late Kennedy. “He specifically said, ‘My brother was killed by a white man and I understand your anger.’” It was from that story that the director knew, “there’s so much more to this man that we need to capture.”
For the Magnolia Pictures and Participant-distributed release, Porter didn’t want to film Lewis as “just another historical figure” when CNN gave her the development money to begin the film. After she learned that Erika Alexander also had an idea for a John Lewis documentary, Porter’s first instinct was to say, “let’s do it together” and collaborate. The end result was “John Lewis: Good Trouble” becoming one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, scoring 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
When it came to Pete Souza, the photographer to former President Barack Obama during his eight-year term, Porter was well aware of the 2.5 million photos he had in his archives. Alongside her crew and production team, they went through “tens of thousands” of photographs for her film “The Way I See It.” She says, “they say the victor gets to write the story and the story he was telling about Barack Obama was about empathy and compassion for all Americans. That’s the story I wanted to tell.”
The acclaimed filmmaker and her producers had a lineup of multiple meetings with various studios in order to pitch the project. It was the first meeting with Focus Features that decided its fate, with the independent studio jumping on board. She recalls, “We had nothing. We had a picture of Pete, two books and a paragraph, and they were like, ‘Yep.’”
Both of Porter’s films dropped when the United States was in need of positivity. “That little ember of optimism, I was fanning the flames of that.”
Porter tells the next generation of documentary filmmakers to “believe.” Going on to say, “the skill you need to be a documentary person is the belief in yourself. Make sure you have something to say.”