Get In the Way
A continuing dialog that Black lives matter
What: Get In The Way: The Journey of John Lewis
When: 6pm Thurs., May 5
Where: Pickford Film Center
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
One Bloody Sunday in 1965, Selma became a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. John Lewis–now a rU.S. Congressman for the state of Georgia, then a young student–helped lead peaceful protesters seeking voting rights for African Americans. Coming face to face with a wall of club-wielding Alabama state troopers and being beaten to the point of unconsciousness, Lewis maintained a steadfast, nonviolent stand. Hours later, televised images of the ensuing assault shocked Americans to the core as they witnessed appalling racial oppression.
Fast forward 50 years to events in Ferguson, the militarization of police forces and countless stories of police brutality largely targeting people of color, many Americans are wondering just how much progress we have made and what can be done.
Get in the Way is the first biographical film about Lewis, a respected legislator and untiring advocate for nonviolent efforts to achieve justice. The film explores Lewis’ personal journey as he inspires others to stand up and Get in the Way.
Director Kathleen Dowdey has spent much of her career making documentaries, among them Blue Heaven, which revealed the hidden world of domestic violence. Her PBS special, Dawn’s Early Light, was a compelling biography of Southern newspaper editor Ralph McGill. She has also worked as a television writer, director and producer, and her work has been broadcast on CBS/Paramount, NBC, PBS, TLC, the History Channel, and HGTV. She is a member of the Directors Guild of America, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the International Documentary Association.
Cascadia Weekly: You met Lewis in the 1980s when working on a documentary about Ralph McGill, a former editor of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. What was it about Lewis that compelled you to want to document his life?
Kathleen Dowdey: I was working on the film “Dawn’s Early Light: Ralph McGill and the Segregated South” and Lewis was a councilman in Atlanta at the time. I didn’t know much about him and frankly I wasn’t prepared for the sheer personal force of the man. He’s a very self-possessed person and even in his silence he has a very powerful charisma. After the interview, I asked him to tell the crew a little about his life story and we soon realized he was a master storyteller who has a deliberate way of speaking and telling things that put you in that place in time. He would talk about the look of things, the sound of things, and it had a very immediate, very vivid impact. By the time the interview was over, we were asking if he wanted us to do a documentary on him. This was before he was in Congress and very few people outside the South knew his name.
CW: You started filming “Get In The Way” in the early 1990s but funding issues kept the film from being completed until 2015. What happened there and how did you overcome some of those challenges?
KD: At the time John Lewis was very well-known in the South, but he was pretty much unheard of anywhere else. He was one of those leaders who did not like being in the limelight and was essentially a fairly shy person. He’s done a good job of overcoming that after years in politics, but he was very reserved and quiet. So we ran into trouble getting funding right away because people felt the film would only have a regional audience. We kept saying, “No, no, you don’t understand what this guy did,” but eventually we put it away for about 10 or 15 years.
And, as it turns out, the waiting was worth it because of what’s currently happening in our country with police abuse and mass incarceration. There are lessons in the film that can be very instructive for people who are organizing for social justice and struggling to find ways to strategically address some of these truly egregious issues.
CW: How has the making of this film changed the way you see the world—in particular the continuing struggle for civil rights for all Americans. Was there anything that surprised you or stood out?
KD: There were a lot of things that surprised us at the making of this film. I learned a lot, I read a lot of books and met a lot of principled leaders who had access to amazing stories, but I guess the things that surprised me were more the personal things I learned from the Congressman’s story. For instance, he was raised in high county Alabama in a very close-knit family, but when he moved away to college and became involved in the movement, his family was very much against it and afraid for him. I learned that families of activists endured unpleasant repercussions in the community who didn’t want to see young African American college kids sitting at lunch counters. It was important for me that Lewis’ personal experience be integrated into the story so people saw a human being they could relate to. Many students can relate to their parents not agreeing with their decisions on how to live their lives. It was important to me people see Congressman Lewis as someone they can be. He’s not some god on a pedestal; he’s had very human experiences.
CW: It’s been more than 50 years since the beginning of the “Civil Rights Movement” and yet we still hear about gross injustices like Ferguson and other instances of police abuse. In your mind, what has changed and and what still needs to be done?
KD: A whole lot has changed obviously. Technology, for example. People used to converse face to face, and it’s funny because the Congressman is technophobic, he doesn’t even text, so it’s kind of a running joke with his staff that they need to communicate with him via a mimeograph machine. But I think with losing that face-to-face time we’ve kind of adopted this attitude of “I will only spend time with people with whom I absolutely agree with on every point.” Back then there seemed to be more of an understanding that being alive and being part of the Democratic community meant that we aren’t always going to agree with everyone, but that’s O.K. and sometimes we even can learn from our disagreements. I think now there’s a tendency to insulate yourself with your friends and the people who are on your side and that’s a very polarizing development that seems to have gotten so extreme at this point. The danger in that is it’s very hard to make change and move things forward when you have that kind of mentality. We become kind of stagnant when we’re not being questioned, when we’re not being challenged.
I do think that time of extending yourself to listen and communicate with people who don’t share all of your beliefs is very important. I understand there was some very bad behavior back then, too, but discourse was also part of the culture and I think we’ve sort of lost that. It’s become so easy to marginalize people because you don’t agree with them, but unfortunately that does not lead to dealing with issues, it does not lead to people working together, it does not lead to compromise.
CW: Much of Lewis’ activism focused on voting rights. After making this film does it bother you to hear people saying they won’t vote if their particular candidate isn’t nominated?
KD: I do have a hard time in any election when people say they’re not going to vote. It’s such an important part of being an American and a lot of us forget women didn’t even have that right until the 1920s. A big part of the film is tracing Lewis’ work addressing first segregation and then the abysmal voter suppression that existed in the South. A lot of his early career was about the struggle for voting rights and he saw many of his friends beaten and himself was badly beaten. So it’s very important to me to exercise that right, and when people say they’re not going to vote, I like to remind them of all the people who died or were beaten and years of struggling to get that right. Many people don’t know that history or that struggle and how so many people disenfranchised at the time put their lives on the line to get that passed. I think that’s why with what’s going on now, it’s a very hard thing to see the sliding back from the great things that were made. People forget our rights are always something that we can lose and I think what’s happening right now is a very good example of that.
CW: “Get In The Way” was recently screened for both Democratic & Republican members of Congress. Were you surprised by this level of recognition?
KD: Voting rights are a very bipartisan issue. People keep wanting to make it a partisan issue, but it’s really not. We interviewed a lot of Congressional members for the film, and nearly all of them said, when Lewis speaks, everyone listens. He’s often referred to as the “Conscience of Congress.” There are also many Republican members who admire him—even if they don’t agree with him, they admire him. So in some ways, we weren’t surprised because that is his community.
CW: What do you hope people will take away from the film?
KD: There are many people who don’t know who John Lewis is. A lot of young people outside of the South do not know who he is. So at a very elemental level, I hope people know who he is and recognize what a true American activist and leader he is. Of course, part of that is to know what it means and understand to be committed to nonviolence, which is covered in the film. I find the further away you get from the south, the fewer people know him. There are many people who I would consider very politically aware but still don’t know him. That and having a better understanding for Lewis’ practice of nonviolence—whether it’s a tactic, philosophy or a spiritual commitment, or all of the above. More than anything we want people to feel that inspiration and act on it. If you are moved by the film, there are so many things you can do and they don’t necessarily have to be political. But it’s so important that we are engaged in our communities and work to strengthen those communities.