On Sunday, February 21, civil rights legend John Lewis will turn 76. But the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta has organized a pre-birthday celebration on Wednesday to honor the Congressman who represents Georgia’s 5th District. He will be in attendance for the local premiere of Kathleen Dowdey’s new documentary, Get in the Way: The Journey of John Lewis.
Lewis has been featured before in award-winning documentaries about civil rights history such as Eyes on the Prize, A Ripple of Hope and Freedom Riders. He has also published an autobiography, Walking with the Wind, and even co-authored with Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell, March, a graphic novel trilogy about the Civil Rights Movement told from his perspective.
But Get in the Way marks the first time a documentary has focused solely on Lewis’ journey from his childhood on a rural Alabama farm to his present status as a civil rights legend and leader who has been hailed by President Obama as “one of my heroes.”
Dowdey has been a filmmaker since the early 1980s and first attracted attention with A Celtic Trilogy (1981), featuring Irish actress Siobhan McKenna. Initially based in Atlanta before moving to Los Angeles in 1990, Dowdey first met Lewis when she interviewed him for her documentary Dawn’s Early Light: Ralph McGill and the Segregated South (1988).
From their first meeting, Dowdey was completely captivated by Lewis’ moving stories about the early days of the Civil Rights Movement and his years as a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“At the end of the interview,” she said, “I asked him if he would be willing to have a documentary film made about him and he was immediately agreeable.”
Dowdry and her crew went to Lewis’ home turf in Pike County, Alabama, and shot a family reunion. She wanted to capture the people he grew up with. Then the project ran into financial problems and was put on hold. At the time, they had shot approximately 20 hours of footage that also included several interviews with Lewis, his colleagues and fellow activists. But it was not enough material to complete the portrait she wanted to craft.
Almost 17 years later, in 2010, Dowdey paid a visit to Lewis in Washington, D.C., and showed him some of the footage they had filmed in the early 1990s. “He was in tears when he watched it,” she said. “Many of the people in that footage have passed including his mother and I think she more than anyone realized how important he would become.”
After the meeting, they all agreed to finish the film.
Trying to condense 75 years of a man’s life into a 60-minute documentary would be a daunting task for any filmmaker, but Dowdey had a vision for the film from the beginning.
“Structurally, we knew we wanted to follow a chronology because the momentum builds as he gets older,” she said. “We looked at stories and sections of the Civil Rights Movement that he was a part of and we selected moments where he underwent a change.”
An example of that is Lewis’ struggles with the elders of the movement — he was in many ways more radical and impatient. “Those are things that precipitated his shifts in understanding what leadership is and what commitment is and what coalition is,” Dowdey said. “It became the way we selected certain scenes and let other scenes go.”
The film also documents his time as an elected official. “The last big event in the film is the 2010 Shelby County v. Holder decision of the Supreme Court and we felt it was a good closer because Lewis had fought so long and hard for a law that guaranteed voting rights for all,” Dowdey said. In that Supreme Court decision, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was deemed unconstitutional. “Lewis’ fire and determination to jump right back in and fight to restore what had been stripped away from the VRA is very typical of his whole life.”
Currently, Get in the Way is still making the rounds at film festivals and selected showings in cities across the country, but plans are in the works for broader distribution. “We’re starting a campaign with several national organizations that are going to use the film to get people talking about specific issues addressed in the documentary,” Dowdey said.
One of those issues remains close to Lewis’ heart, voter suppression that threatens to erase the gains of the civil rights era. “Our campaign is going to be very active right up till November,” Dowdey said.