Suc­cess of Gins­burg film in­spires CNN look at John Lewis

Arab Times - - FEATURES - By David Bauder


the late Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg in­spired CNN Films’ new doc­u­men­tary on the life of civil rights icon Rep John Lewis.

The un­ex­pected com­mer­cial suc­cess of the “RBG” film in the­aters two years ago had CNN look­ing for an­other con­tem­po­rary leader whose life could be seen in his­tor­i­cal terms.

“We knew there was some­thing about the fact that peo­ple thought they knew RBG, but our film re­vealed there was a lot more to know,” said Amy En­telis, head of CNN Films. “We wanted to fig­ure out if there was any­one else like that, and we landed on John Lewis.”

The film, which had a lim­ited re­lease this sum­mer and was part of the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val, pre­mieres on tele­vi­sion Sun­day at 9 pm Eastern on CNN.

As Erika Alexan­der, a pro­ducer of “John Lewis: Good Trou­ble,” put it, he was “more than just some­one who crossed a bridge and got hit in the head.”

The footage that made Lewis a part of his­tory, from the 1965 march in Alabama, is of course a big part of the film. Knocked to the ground and beaten with a night­stick by a po­lice of­fi­cer for cross­ing the Edmund Pet­tus Bridge in Selma as part of a civil rights march, Lewis thought he was go­ing to die that day.

In­vited into the move­ment af­ter writ­ing a let­ter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who dubbed him the “boy from Troy” (Alabama), Lewis par­tic­i­pated in Free­dom Rides. He was leader of the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee and spoke from the stage dur­ing the his­toric March on Washington, af­ter el­ders edited the young fire­brand’s speech to tone it down.

That was all be­fore a 33-year ca­reer in Congress that ended with his death in July at age 80.

“John Lewis was re­ally a sin­gu­lar fig­ure in pol­i­tics,” said Dawn Porter, the film’s di­rec­tor. “He was a per­son who was able to live his val­ues. There was no doubt where he stood on is­sues. But where pos­si­ble, he crossed the aisle” to reach com­mon ground.

Lewis said he was ar­rested some 45 times, all for get­ting into what he called “good trou­ble,” rais­ing a ruckus for a right­eous cause.

Yet he ap­peared never to be over­come by cyn­i­cism.


“He had a mys­tique,” said Alexan­der, an ac­tor and ac­tivist who cam­paigned with Lewis for Hil­lary Clin­ton four years ago. “But when it came down to it, he was a very sweet man.”

Alexan­der was work­ing on her own doc­u­men­tary about Lewis be­fore En­telis en­cour­aged her to join forces with Porter, the type of Hol­ly­wood ar­range­ment that of­ten doesn’t work but did in this case.

Their film has some mem­o­rable touches. Lewis told the story about how he prac­ticed preach­ing in front of his fam­ily’s chick­ens while grow­ing up so of­ten that cam­eras caught some con­gres­sional staff mem­bers silently mouthing the words as he spoke.

A staff mem­ber an­swered, “te­dious,” when asked what it was like to walk through an air­port with Lewis, who was fre­quently stopped by ad­mir­ers. An­other con­gress­man, the late Eli­jah Cum­mings, said that “I’ve had a lot of pic­tures taken where peo­ple think that I’m John Lewis.”

Lewis trea­sured a pro­gram from the in­au­gu­ral of Barack Obama, who signed it and wrote that his elec­tion as the first Black pres­i­dent “was be­cause of you, John.” Four years later when Obama was re­elected, he said “it’s still be­cause of you.”

With the film’s gen­eral ad­mir­ing tone, it was a jolt to hear one ex­am­ple of Lewis play­ing hard­ball in a ques­tion­able way. He beat his good friend Julian Bond in a 1986 pri­mary for Congress af­ter pub­licly chal­leng­ing him to take a drug test.

Porter fin­ished the film late last fall, just be­fore learn­ing that Lewis had been di­ag­nosed with pan­cre­atic can­cer.

She de­cided not to up­date her work with the news, in part be­cause she didn’t want to dis­rupt a pow­er­ful clos­ing scene. Porter, a Cal­i­for­nia res­i­dent, flew to Washington in Fe­bru­ary to screen the film for her sub­ject, call­ing it her “best Valen­tine’s Day ever.”

CNN also had to con­sider whether Lewis’ ill­ness would change its public re­lease plans for the film. Ul­ti­mately, it didn’t.

“As tragic as that was, we felt re­lieved that we had cap­tured what we had set out to do,” En­telis said. “It was a mat­ter of fig­ur­ing out what to do that was ap­pro­pri­ate and taste­ful.”

While “John Lewis: Good Trou­ble” didn’t have nearly the ex­po­sure in the­aters as “RBG” — the coro­n­avirus pan­demic guar­an­teed that — En­telis be­lieves the time is right for peo­ple to see it on tele­vi­sion. It of­fers a deeper dive into Lewis’ life for peo­ple who be­came in­trigued about his story around the time he died. (AP)

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