John Lewis: Good Trouble, directed by Dawn Porter (Trapped, Gideon’s Army) is an insightful and immersive look at the life of the respected civil rights activist and Democratic Representative from Georgia. To list of all of John Lewis’ accomplishments in a documentary is a major feat, but the project does an excellent job at showing why the politician and activist’s passion for voting rights, civil rights, immigration, and health-care reform has not dimmed. Actress Erika Alexander (Living Single, I See You), a co-founder of Color Farm Media, produced the feature and she talked to us about what it takes to be a successful producer.
Color Farm Media describes itself as a “21st century entertainment, innovation, and social impact company,” and they have shepherded the first rate documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble. This project thankfully does not preach to the choir or exist as a puff piece on Lewis. Instead we are given an up close and personal look at what makes Lewis tick as a person and why he has never been one to rest on his laurels.
During the interview Erika Alexander explained that producing was a way of spotlghting and collaborating with more diverse voices. This career expansion was an answer to the dearth of roles for Black women (or for that matter minorities in general). There is a sea change on the horizon, and documentaries such as John Lewis: Good Trouble is setting the culture in a resoundingly forward direction.
From your vantage point, what are the key elements to being a successful producer and getting one’s project off the ground?
I got my first producing advice from the great Joseph Papp of the Public Theater. He asked me what I wanted to do, I was doing a play there. I was 19 and I told him I might go to school (NYU) – not to be an actress (although I was acting) – but to be a producer. He said “You don’t need to go to school for that.”
I said “Why?” and he said “You want to know how to produce, take something and make it happen.”
There’s a lot of water under the bridge to that happening, but the truth is if your goal is to make something happen that means you have to brave all sorts of obstacles, put up with a lot of disappointment and create partnerships with other people.
It turns out I’m made for that because acting gives me a good background of rejection so I’m good at that (laughs). I’m good at disappointment. Being a preacher’s daughter – my mother’s a teacher and my father’s a preacher – I’ve had to make partnerships with different people because they were both orphans.
So in a way my whole life growing up and seeing how they leveraged not having any family and/or means but still gained a foothold in places showed me that you need to be a reliable partner.
The other thing is hard work, resilience, and believing in what you are making. It turns out there is a lot of great voices out there that do not have access or resources.
If you are able to get them to believe in your ability to move things along and keep them first and foremost protected but also be honest with them, then you got something. Then you can be a producer.
John Lewis: Good Trouble is a documentary that can be released at any time and it would be relevant and needed. That said, this is really a perfect time to honor and be inspired by Lewis’ overall life and accomplishments.
In my life, I would have never thought . . . I don’t even know what a pandemic is past talking about it from 1918. I had seen things like that but I thought it was behind us. Things like even polio.
So here we are not only talking about the pandemic, but the civil unrest unleashed by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd to come to a head for people of all colors, all races, all ages, saying ‘enough is enough.’ Not because they see a Black man, it’s because they see themselves in that response. They’re like “If I can’t see the wrong in that, then ain’t nothing right” and that is “Good Trouble.”
When you see it and you understand it to be wrong and you go out and say that is wrong and I’m going to put my life and my body in harm’s way to protect someone else’s life . . . you do protect your own but I think that Good Trouble just happened to be a destiny film.
John Lewis is a series of discoveries and destiny inside of his life. Whether he was writing to Martin Luther King Jr. to join the Class Action suit for the discrimination he was experiencing trying to get into college, then obviously at 19 desegregating those lunch counters and then at 23 speaking at the March on Washington. And then him going forward through all those assassinations and despair and everything to become a Congressman with a wife and child and then eventually have to face pancreatic stage 4 cancer in the middle of a pandemic. Child please.
He’s a blueprint for what makes human beings great.
You’re a very talented actress and I’m taking a guess here, but can you talk about following your own road regarding your acting path and not cashing that easy check?
Oh well that would have been nice. It would have been nice to have a check to cash. The reason I went this way is because that actually is not true. If you’re a Black female actress you have a tough way to go. There are very few roles.
If you are of any other different color, Asian or otherwise, it’s even worse. I’m telling you right now I did this as self-preservation to become a producer and creator. I figured if I could make more opportunities for myself then naturally I could expand the pie for everyone.
There’s plenty of room out there for all of us, but as long as it was going through the filter of a white, male point of view (as) also the power source, then it would never change.
I think right now minority creators are finding we need to partner together in order to make a more just alliance and union. Not because we’re American – (but) because we’re human. We need to tell that human story.
I’m excited about the future. I’m excited about Black Panther. I’m excited about Crazy Rich Asians. I’m excited about Roma. I’m excited about all these players who are not playing. That’s where the future lies. You’re just seeing me adjusting my lack of work with trying to create content.
Can you talk about your goals as a co-creator of Color Farm Media?
So with Color Farm we call ourselves the Motown of Film, Television and Tech. We’re trying to take the template that Berry Gordy had. He knew all these people – Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye – they didn’t have resources to make albums and he thought “My friends can sing just sing as well as anybody else I’m hearing.”
With that loan that he got from his family, he was able to create Motown which created the Motown Sound. He did that with the jewels just around his feet.
I believe that the next people who are out there still don’t have that bridge, no one’s looking for them. But I am.
It’s also because we think the biases come within not only racism, gender and ageism but also geography. I’m from Arizona, if I hadn’t gone to Philadelphia, I would have never been able to be discovered in a basement theater called Freedom Theater at an open call for an independent film.
So we need to find ways bring more resources to production companies who are creating the new narrative and that new narrative will change the world. If we see environmental change and pollution as something that is more than just some quick commercial on a TV, we got to see it through story.
There’s a destruction of the Earth happening right now and if we tell a better story, we’ll be able to protect all sorts of things.
What can we learn in general from John Lewis? From my point of view is it’s to keep fighting and not sink into despair no matter what the cost.
I think you’re totally right. He knew that having the right to vote is the most powerful, nonviolent tool for change and he works hard every day to defend it, to protect it for everyone. He knows it’s the cornerstone and proof of life for a strong democracy. He has skin in the game, he shed the tears and the blood to keep the vote safe and he knows that is what truly makes America great.
To maintain the conditions of freedom and justice we must fight to keep that ability alive and that is what we need to learn. Our democracy is a moving target – you ain’t going to get it just because you think you inherited it and it naturally works. You’ve got to show up.
People think voting is a joke. The joke is you not voting then you’re controlled by everybody else. So if you want to go to a monarch which the Russians are experiencing right now – even know they are saying they want their current leader to rule until 2036. Good luck.
Even the people who whether they were wrong in bringing slavery to this nation, they knew then that they didn’t want to be ruled by King George because King George had been a tyranny of madmen that were ruling their lives as Irishmen and Europeans. They came over here to make a new way.
Well, they didn’t make it for everybody, so now we’re making a more perfect union. You got to show up though and you have to make it local too. So that is what I think people are learning that he is a strategic genius and that he wasn’t just brave.
They learned from James Lawson. They read books. And then they did the work. We need to see it as a process and not just a protest.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you Greg, I appreciate you. Bye-bye!