RIP John Lewis (1940 – 2020)
After their successful collaboration for the acclaimed four-part docuseries “Bobby Kennedy for President,” director Dawn Porter and producer Laura Michalchyshyn were eager to find another project to work on together. Amy Entelis and Courtney Sexton of CNN Films were searching for a team with which to collaborate to develop their team’s concept for a film about the life and legacy of legendary civil rights leader and legislator U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis (D-GA). Entelis and Sexton, production executives valued within the industry for their experience and skill producing documentaries, had recently executive produced the Academy Award-nominated, Emmy-winning feature RBG, about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, another beloved public icon. (RBG was theatrical distributed by Magnolia Pictures and Participant). Entelis had also previously collaborated with Michalchyshyn for two CNN Original Series, HYPERLINK “https://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/category/cnn-u-s-tv/cnn-original-series/chicagoland/” Chicagoland and HYPERLINK “https://www.cnn.com/shows/death-row-stories” Death Row Stories.
“The biggest reason I got involved in this project is because of John Lewis himself,” Porter says. “He’s such a towering figure, and I knew that by partnering with CNN Films, I’d be able to explore not only his past, but his present as well, that we would also have access to the archival resources at CNN Worldwide. John Lewis has consistently delivered a message of doing your best, being honorable, and respecting others for the past 65+ years. I think it’s really needed at this particular moment in history.” Porter reached out to Michalchyshyn and their Trilogy Films began working on the documentary with CNN Films for a development concept.
Shortly after the team determined their development concept for John Lewis: Good Trouble, Porter received a call from filmmakers Erika Alexander and Ben Arnon of Color Farm Media. Alexander and Arnon were already in contact with Lewis’ office about making their own documentary about him. Aware that Porter had interviewed Lewis for both her award-winning 2013 film Gideon’s Army, and for the Bobby Kennedy series, the Color Farm duo reached out to Porter as a potential director for their project.
“When we got her on the phone Dawn said, ‘I need to tell you before we start our conversation that I have my own John Lewis project that I’m working on,’” recalls Arnon. “So, within about 20 seconds, we all realized it would make much more sense to collaborate on a film together. It turned out to be an easy transition right from the start, which was great.” Alexander also praised Porter saying, “Dawn Porter is one of the best documentary filmmakers of her generation. She’s incredibly kind, generous and smart. She’s also a natural-born storyteller. She and Laura have been making excellent films for a long time. Ben and I were thrilled to be making our first film with them. I grew up in Hollywood and as a black woman I was excited to be working alongside Dawn; a talented, strong black woman, who was not afraid to share her expertise and guide us, a young filmmaking team, into a very difficult process.”
Documenting Lewis’ life and work also fit perfectly into Color Farm Media’s mission. “We’re focused on bringing greater equity and inclusion to the media landscape, and our goal is to tell stories that are often overlooked, but deserve to be elevated,” Arnon notes. “So, making a film about John Lewis aligned very closely with our company’s mission.”
Like Porter, Arnon and Alexander saw John Lewis: Good Trouble as a chance to reveal the man behind the legend. “Erika and I have a long history of social activism, and John Lewis is a hero to both of us,” he adds. “But often in the past, whether on film or TV, he’s been depicted as a bit of a side figure in shows about Martin Luther King Jr. or other civil rights leaders. So, we felt it was time to bring Congressman Lewis front and center, because his story is so powerful, and he deserves that.” For Alexander, her path to producing the film was even more personal. “Destiny brought the Congressman and I together. I campaigned in Georgia with Congressman Lewis, Stacey Abrams and Ayanna Pressley in 2016. That’s like the dream team. Ayanna, Stacey and I had the privilege to travel around Georgia and learn from John Lewis, how to be young, gifted and black in American politics. Mr. Lewis was the perfect teacher and a patient host. He was also a gentleman, who opened our doors and helped us up the steps. It was heaven. I didn’t know then that that real world work, and access, would lead to making the congressman’s documentary.
“Dawn is an amazing documentarian who’s been heralded for the important work she’s done, including Spies of Mississippi (2014, PBS’ Independent Lens) and a film called Trapped (2016), about shutting down access to abortion and women’s reproductive rights in the South,” says Michalchyshyn. “She’s dedicated her career to giving voice to the voiceless, and I like to think of my job as an ally, fighting for her vision.”
Porter’s skills, both personal and creative, are evident in the final product, according to Arnon. “Dawn was able to build a really strong rapport with Congressman Lewis. He shares some great details of his life in the film, and that was because of the connection she established with him.” Alexander further praises Porter and in turn Congressman Lewis, “Dawn Porter directed this documentary and she brilliantly puts the spotlight squarely on Congressman John Lewis. Good Trouble is his show. This allows the audience to finally focus and learn about him. He, in turn, gets the opportunity to tell us about his life, in his own words. Now we get to know what it was like for him growing up a black sharecropper in Alabama in a large, loving family. We laugh at how he honed his fiery, oratorical skills, by preaching to the chickens. He tells us how he met Martin Luther King and began his work as a student activist with SNCC, traveling through Jim Crow south as a Freedom Rider. This all leads to the fateful day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where white policemen stormed their peaceful march and cracked his skull open, nearly killing him. But John Lewis not only survived all of that, and more, he thrived and became a husband to his beautiful wife and political partner, Lillian Miles, a father to his son John Miles Lewis, and was elected the Congressman from Georgia who earned the respect of his red and blue state peers, who lovingly call him, “The conscience of the Congress.” In our documentary, Good Trouble, we get to see Congress John Robert Lewis tell that story. His story. And it’s a good story.
While Porter focused on the creative aspects of the film, Michalchyshyn says that her role consisted primarily of paving the way for the director, raising additional financing, and serving as a liaison between the various filmmaking partners. CNN Films is an executive producer of John Lewis: Good Trouble and retains North American broadcast rights for the documentary.
In addition to CNN Films, leading independent film financier AGC Studios came onboard before production began as one of the two cornerstone financiers of the film. As part of that investment AGC acquired the international rights to the film and served as executive producer for the film. In addition to CNN Films, AGC Studios, and Color Farm, additional partners that joined the project included theatrical distributors Magnolia Pictures and Participant, and executive producers TIME Studios.
ABOUT REP. JOHN R. LEWIS
“John Lewis…is a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.” — Roll Call
Often called “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced,” John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls “The Beloved Community” in America. His dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress.
He has been called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” and Roll Call magazine has said, “John Lewis…is a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.”
He was born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts. In those pivotal moments, he made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Ever since then, he has remained at the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle in the United States.
As a student at Fisk University, John Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis risked his life on those Rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.
During the height of the Movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the Movement, including sit-ins and other activities.
While still a young man, John Lewis became a nationally recognized leader. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.
In 1964, John Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year, Lewis helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Hosea Williams, another notable Civil Rights leader, and John Lewis led over 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. They intended to march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” News broadcasts and photographs revealing the senseless cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. Lewis went on to become the Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls.
In 1977, John Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.
In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. While serving on the Council, he was an advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then. He is Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, and Chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight.
John Lewis holds a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, and he is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee. He has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Harvard University, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Duke University, Morehouse College, Clark-Atlanta University, Howard University, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Fisk University, and Troy State University.
John Lewis is the recipient of numerous awards from eminent national and international institutions, including the highest civilian honor granted by President Barack Obama, the Medal of Freedom, the Lincoln Medal from the historic Ford’s Theatre, the Golden Plate Award given by the Academy of Excellence, the Preservation Hero award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Capital Award of the National Council of La Raza, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the President’s Medal of Georgetown University, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the National Education Association Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award, and the only John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
John Lewis is the co-author of the National Book Award winning and #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel memoir trilogy MARCH, written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. The first volume, MARCH: Book One, received a 2014 American Library Association (ALA) Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor, an ALA Notable Children’s Book designation, was named one of YALSA’s 2014 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens, and became the first graphic novel ever to receive a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. MARCH: Book Two was released in 2015 and immediately became both a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller. MARCH: Book Two was awarded the comic industry’s highest honor, the Will Eisner Award, as well as two Harvey awards among other honors. MARCH: Book Three was released in 2016, debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and became the first comics work to ever win the National Book Award. In January 2017, MARCH: Book Three made history again by winning four ALA Youth Media Awards, including the Printz Award, the Sibert Medal, the Coretta Scott King Author Book Award, and the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, becoming the first book to ever win four Youth Media Awards in a single year and cementing the MARCH Trilogy’s place at the pinnacle of comics and young adult literature.
The MARCH trilogy has been adopted into the core curriculum of school systems across the country to teach the Civil Rights Movement to the next generation, and has been selected as a First-Year common reading text at colleges and universities such as Michigan State University, Georgia State University, Marquette University, University of Utah, Henderson State University, University of Illinois Springfield, Washburn University, and many others. He is also the author of Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, written with Brenda Jones, and winner of the 2012 NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Work-Biography.
His biography, published in 1998, is entitled Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. Written with Michael D’Orso, Walking With The Wind is a recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He is also the subject of two other books written about his life: Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement, by Ann Bausum and John Lewis in the Lead, by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, with illustrations by famous Georgia artist, Bennie Andrews.
REP. JOHN R. LEWIS TIMELINE
February 21, 1940
Born John Robert Lewis in Troy, AL
Becomes one of the original 13 ‘Freedom Riders’
Receives a B.A. from American Baptist Theological Seminary
Becomes chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
August 28, 1963
Youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Mississippi ‘Freedom Summer’
July 2, 1964
Civil Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson
March 7, 1965
Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams (SCLC) lead 600 demonstrators in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in an event now known as ‘Bloody Sunday’
August 6, 1965
Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lewis leaves SNCC to become Associate Director of the Field Foundation’s Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs
Receives a B.A. from Fisk University in Religion and Philosophy
December 31, 1967
John Lewis meets Lillian Miles
December 21, 1968
Marries Lillian Miles
Loses U.S. Congressional race to Wyche Fowler in special election, becomes his chief advisor
Appointed to associate director of ACTION, a national volunteer program, by President Jimmy Carter
Elected to at-large seat for the Atlanta City Council
Wins bitterly contested run-off election against Georgia State Rep. Julian Bond for U.S. Congressional seat
Co-authors Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement with Michael D’Orso
March 7, 2004
John R. Lewis Monument, which commemorates ‘Bloody Sunday,’ is unveiled in Selma, AL
February 15, 2011
Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Co-authors Across That Bridge with Brenda Jones
December 31, 2012
August 13, 2013
Publishes MARCH: Book One, the first in a series of graphically-illustrated books about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement