John Lewis Documentary Director on How Hollywood Should Respond to Georgia Voter Suppression

After the installation of restrictive new voting laws in Georgia, Hollywood seems fractured in response to new measures that affect marginalized voters in a state where dozens of film and TV projects are shot.

Tyler Perry, who just spent $250 million on an Atlanta-based production facility, called for a Department of Justice investigation into the laws this week. Director James Mangold and actor Mark Hamill said they would refuse to set foot in the state to make movies or shows. At the same time, numerous corporate giants, including WarnerMedia and Disney, haven’t said a word.

One filmmaker with direct proximity to the issue is Dawn Porter, the director of Magnolia Pictures’ 2020 documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” Porter was deeply embedded with civil rights icon John Lewis, a congressman who represented Atlanta for 17 terms before his death last July. He is best remembered for his involvement in the 1965 civil rights march on Selma, Ala., which escalated into police brutality.

Porter said openly what many Hollywood executives, producers and decision makers have told Variety in anonymous conversations this week: that the industry needs to take a backseat to local leaders like Stacey Abrams, and look at a larger picture outside the confines of Georgia. That would be a federal voting law named for Lewis, which would strike down state laws and protect the voting process on a national level. Porter sat for a conversation with Variety this week about how sorely Lewis is missed in this moment, and how his legacy can inspire lasting action.

What was your initial reaction to this new legislative move in Georgia, after the state went blue in the 2020 election?

When you do this work, you feel like you can never be shocked. And then events keep proving that wrong. I acutely felt the absence of John Lewis’ voice recently. One is because John Lewis is synonymous with voting rights. And also because John Lewis was always that calm voice that could take on any obstacle. And I think, following the 2020 election, a lot of people who care about civil rights, voting rights and the new direction of the Justice Department, there’s been such a feeling of optimism that this kind of blindsides you — the forces who just will not stop in their opposition to equality. It’s just kind of stunning.

I traveled with Lewis over a year and I watched him. I have watched him in archival footage march for voting rights, organize for voting rights and then stand there as President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act bill, that bill that changed millions of lives and opened up the franchise for people across America. And then I’ve watched again in January 2019, when he introduced H.R. 1 to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act because of so many incursions into that right. So to watch over that span of 50 years and to see him constantly not be deterred, and be that calm voice in the middle saying we are going to prevail, it’s very hard to see this brazen attack on equality. And that’s what it is.

Some have said this is a painful reminder that history is not a steady climb toward the light.

That is exactly right. And I think one of the things that John Lewis was so brilliant at is being very clear-eyed about that — that history was not a linear progression. But also being optimistic and hardworking, and that’s why he always said, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” I think we should not be surprised. People do not let go of power easily. I feel like this Georgia legislation is such a brazen overstep, overreach and that the eyes of the world are on the state and all these legislators. So my hope is that it’s a terrible miscalculation, because what we have seen is when there are similar overreaches in this way, that that is an effective mobilization tool. This is not the time for people who don’t understand the ins and outs of Georgia politics to try and lead. This is the time to support and listen. And that’s what I think all allies should be doing now. And I include myself in that.

The general election seems to have changed Hollywood’s course of action in politics, particularly in Georgia, according to many of the industry people I’ve spoken with. Would you agree?

Yes. A good example is the calls for the boycott, and I understand where it comes from, but also hearing people on the ground are saying that’s not going to help us because you’re affecting jobs. We have to be more nuanced in our thinking, to not harm the people that work we’re supposed to be fighting for. Right now, we need to follow.

In your opinion, is there a correlation between Georgia turning blue in the general and this swift voting restriction?

100%. I mean, that is a sign that what the activists have done is working, it’s really a last grasp at retaining power. And so, understanding that if what you’ve done has been so effective that it’s provoked this outrageous response, you must have been really effective. What would Mr. Lewis do? I think about that a lot. I think he would use it to say, “let’s try to stay blue forever.” Let’s make sure that this is not even a possibility, allowing people who would abuse their power to stay in public service. There is no place in public service for people who will abuse their power in this way.

Where did John Lewis’ level-headedness come from?

Activism was part of his personal belief system. It was kind of this combination of a religious devotion and what it means to be a human. When he would talk about non-violence, I think part of what he meant is we need to have a sober, thoughtful and consistent and morally-sound approach to all problems, and not a reflexive response. Because reflexive is anger, and anger can lead to violence. There are some very formidable activists on the ground in Georgia and the machine that has been built by all of those, largely women, being comforted in the idea that once you build a structure, it’s really hard to tear that down. The education that has happened for the electorate is in place, and that’s been happening for a decade. So passing of this law isn’t going to take away the organizing capability and strength that has come from that organizing.

What are the biggest challenges in passing the federal legislation named for Lewis? 

I think it’s being introduced in a hyper-partisan environment, where opponents of the law have been required to swear a blood oath to opposition. That’s not public service. Lewis’ absence in the congress is going to make it harder to pass this law because he had forged relationships with several people across the aisle. We need people to step. People aren’t going to vote for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act because they love John Lewis, everybody loves John Lewis. They’re going to vote for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act because people put pressure on them to force them to explain why they wouldn’t support and opening fair franchise. It’ll be very interesting to see, just watching with the lane that this administration has taken — the very bold American Rescue Plan, the bold infrastructure plan. We must depoliticize the idea of a free and fair franchise. This is something that supports Americans.

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