Dawn Porters’ films document important social issues and the heroes trying to fix them

As part of our Celebration Series, FF2 Media pays tribute to the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

Dawn Porter’s latest documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, was released this month so it’s the perfect time to look back at her impressive career thus far. Porter directs documentaries that illuminate issues facing the United States and the heroic individuals who fight against them. Over the course of the past seven years, she has directed multiple films and series on topics ranging from abortion clinics to Bobby Kennedy. Her work has appeared on HBO, PBS, Discovery, and Netflix and has won multiple awards. 

Porter graduated from Swarthmore College and Georgetown University Law School and her background in law has provided her with a knowledge base for her documentaries dealing with the American legal system. At the beginning of her career, she worked as an executive producer on several films, both documentaries and narrative feature films. Her directorial debut was in 2013 with Gideon’s Army and she has consistently directed documentaries ever since then, including Netflix’s Bobby Kennedy for President four-part documentary series and the documentary short, Voting Matters. She has been commissioned by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Time, and Amazon and has received support from the MacArthur Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. 

Porter makes her documentaries through Trilogy Films, her production company that specializes in feature-length documentaries. They seek to illuminate marginalized perspectives and tell stories that might otherwise go unheard. The company’s website states, “We make non-fiction content that tells untold stories, shares new perspectives, and reveals the complex humanity of some of history’s most iconic figures.” 

The first film made by Trilogy Films was Porter’s directorial debut, Gideon’s Army. It examines the difficult job of public defenders in the American South struggling to help their clients within a flawed legal system. It profiles three different public defenders and follows them through a handful of their cases. Porter does a great job of painting a picture of what daily life is like for these individuals who are overworked and underpaid. It’s eye-opening not just to the difficulty of their job, but also to the ways in which the legal system fails those who end up in it. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Creative Promise Award and was later nominated for an Emmy. 

From Dawn Porter’s film Gideon’s Army.

The following year, Porter produced and directed Spies of Mississippi about a spy agency that fought to prevent desegregation and promote white supremacy. Made for PBS, the documentary sheds light on the group called the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission which was formed as a reaction against the attempts to desegregate society in the 1950s and 1960s. The Commission infiltrated groups like the NAACP and continued their work for over a decade. Porter’s documentary reveals the far reach of the organization which many people today don’t even know about.

Porter’s 2016 documentary Trapped also premiered at Sundance and won the special jury social-impact prize. In this film, Porter shows how the TRAP anti-abortion laws influence abortion providers in the South. In particular, she shows the effects on the only abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi. She highlights the work of those fighting to provide women with the ability to get an abortion despite the legislation. The film also won a Peabody Award, amongst other honors. 

Last week, Porter’s latest documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble was released. It profiles Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis who has been fighting for equal rights since he was a teenager. Porter does a great job of showing the breadth of his work while also highlighting his work to ensure voting rights for all in particular. It blends together modern footage of Lewis going about his life with older photos and interviews. Interview subjects range from Lewis’s sisters to Hillary Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It is a beautiful documentary that is a fitting tribute to an important man who has done so much for the American people. 

Porter has several exciting upcoming projects that she is directing and executive-producing. She is currently working on a documentary series about mental health for Apple TV+ with Prince Harry and Oprah. She is also working on a thus-far untitled documentary about photojournalist Pete Souza, who was the official White House photographer during the Obama administration, and a documentary called Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain about the Black thought-leader Vernon Jordan. 

Porter’s films are not only important because they are commendable technically and artistically, but because they elucidate issues facing Americans today and show the people who are tackling those problems. Her films are not just for entertainment, but for education and many of them could certainly be used in a classroom. She’s an exciting documentary director to keep an eye on as her films have only improved over the course of her career and she seems to be on a path to continuing success. 

© Nicole Ackman (7/15/20) FF2 Media

From John Lewis: Good Trouble.

Photos: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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