Conscience of Congress John Lewis Hopes You’ll ‘Get in the Way’ of Things

Lewis’s lifelong philosophy on civil disobedience is admirable and urgent. Interview with Get in the Way Director, Kathleen Dowdey.

These days cyber protestations stampede endlessly and mercurially across millions of computer screens; they erupt into a jumble of memes, tweets, and combustible screed. They often deliver shock and then swiftly vanish, only to be replaced by more of the same.

The impersonal nature of much of social media can easily result in reductionist divisiveness, which goes a long way to explain how it is that Donald Trump currently presides over America’s hostile political climate. Against this backdrop, how do we get our voices heard? How do we as a society consistently apply peaceful political pressure to our elected officials?

Congressman John Lewis (Georgia), the subject of Kathleen Dowdey’s excellent Get In the Way: The Journey of John Lewis, has an incisive answer to this concern. At the beginning of the one hour documentary (to premiere on PBS Friday, 10 February at 10:30 PM EST), Lewis states in his characteristically earnest matter “Tell the story. Tell it over and over again.”

The story, which Lewis has re-told countless times over his legendary political career, is about the origins and nature of his pivotal role in the ’60s Civil Rights Movement, and his continual infusion of activism into his later Congressional career. Get In the Way captures Lewis’s lifelong philosophy on civil disobedience, which is to “find a way to get in the way. To get people to see what’s happening.”

In addition to a litany of interviews with Lewis, civil rights icons, and members of Congress, Dowdey delivers dynamic photo and video coverage of Lewis’s pivotal moments as an activist. By spending 20 years compiling a combination of archival footage with Lewis’s more recent work on behalf of universal health care, immigration, and gay rights, Dowdey learned a great deal about the diverse and inclusive nature of activism.

“I had a very narrow perception of the definition of activism before I worked on this documentary,” Dowdey says, “What I realized in making this film is that there are writer activists, filmmaker activists, visual artists and all kinds of people in the arts who are essential toward the whole picture of activism.”

According to Dowdey, Lewis has opened many people’s eyes to how they can get involved, in part due to his “very humble beginnings”, which makes him “very relatable to everyone.” Early in Get in the Way, the audience is taken on a trip to Lewis’s childhood home in Alabama, which, during the ’50s was a sharecropper farm. Lewis is seen with his family as a gentle, grandfatherly man surrounded by a down to earth, good humored friends and relatives. In one scene, Lewis is talking to a girl about how he used to preach to chickens on the farm. The moment has an unassuming, lived in quality to it, as if Lewis could be just as comfortable being a slightly goofy grandfather as he would a famous, iron-willed Congressman.

“John will engage in a very attentive way with everyone from little kids to older people,” Dowdey says when reminiscing back to the film’s warm familial scenes. “He’s genuinely interested in everybody. It makes people think ‘well yeah, I could work with this guy. I could do something with this guy.’”

Dowdey intertwines Lewis’s home visit with black and white historic footage of Alabama farmland in the ’50s, and the racially segregated shops from town. Lewis’s voiceover, avuncular and intimate, describes the farm land as incessantly arid, and the work as constantly overwhelming under extreme heat. When Lewis tries to explain in another interview clip that sharecropping was little more than an exhausting gamble laden with increasing debt, his relvative cogently interjects, “it was still slavery”. Lewis lets out a chuckle in agreement — yet another mechanism to let the audience in on the conversation, which is at once shocking, but comes across as a common sentiment among Lewis’s family.

The film then jumps into footage of the Montgomery boycotts. Overall, the sharp sequence is a tightly packaged, powerful testament as to how the combination of personal suffering and movement was a propulsive force toward Lewis’s emergence as a civil rights leader in the United States.

“I had to remain conscious of choosing the key stories in a way to show how Lewis was evolving throughout his lifetime, but without overwhelming the audience with repetitive detail,” Dowdey replied when asked about the film’s narrative style, which at times jumps over a few years at a time.

The strategy worked remarkably well given Get In the Way’s tight run-time, which is just under an hour. The documentary moves through Lewis’s life at a lively pace with a dynamic non-sequential blend of Lewis’s activism during the ’60s with his participation in present day protests, as well as interview clips with Lewis over various periods in his life. Through this sweeping and at times non-linear style, Get In the Way gives the audience a sense of Lewis not so much as a biographical subject, but as Representative John Larson put it, an “experience seared into our collective memory.”

Get In the Way’s most emotionally powerful coverage is of Lewis’s tenure as a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the ‘60s. The emotional impact of this segment is readily derived from Lewis’s courageousness in enduring arrests and violence as consequences of his peaceful civil disobedience during restaurant sit-ins, The Freeedom Rides , and the The Selma to Montgomery March of 1965. However, there’s still much to be said about the documentary’s generous usage of black and white photography to depict Lewis’s arrests and the mixed responses to his protests.

“I notice in those photos the composition is very careful to include the context around what is going on, which is very important,” Dowdey stated. “This was not just an isolated event which was happening. These photos give you a sense of how new and radical what these civil rights activists were doing was.”

The visual background of the photos is essential to their lasting impact. As Dowdey explained, “photos depicting where Lewis is being hauled away by the police or being challenged with a billy club also include people staring and wondering in the background. The people who were watching, the mix of either black or white faces, all this gives you a sense of how new and radical what was going on was perceived.”

In this regard, one way to fully appreciate Get in the Way is to re-watch the film and frequently pause it and pay careful attention to these photos. Look closely at Lewis’s emotional response to his arrests; his expression conveys a mix of fear and resolution. Study the blood on Lewis’s face after he was physically assaulted at a fateful stop during the Freedom Ride. Compare these images in the foreground to some of the angry faces in the background; to those individuals desperately holding on to antiquated party lines. Think about how people in this country could ever want to go back to “the good old days”, and the decades of sacrifice that decent, loving people fought to put those days behind this country.

Throughout Get In the Way there’s continuity between Lewis’s activisim during the ’60s and his current tenure as a Congressman. The film juxtaposes Lewis’s civil rights activism with his role as a conscious voice in Congress on behalf of the fundamental fair treatment of others. In one particularly riveting scene, he preaches the virtues of peaceful protest at an immigration reform rally in Atlanta, Georgia in 2011. In another, we see Lewis walk with dignity past protestors who verbally abuse him while he heads to Capitol Hill to vote on Obama’s Healthcare Bill in March, 2010. These parallels between people who have confronted Lewis in the past and again to this day highlights his lasting importance to a civil rights movement which, sadly, is still a long way from reaching its ideal.

Get in the Way doesn’t veer into the specifics of Lewis’s Congressional career — perhaps a minor blight which can be easily addressed by some additional research — Dowdey was going for a more holistic point about Lewis’s importance as a Congressional activist.

“What is interesting to me in his role as a congressman is that he gives the meaning of ‘politician’ a real spin,” Dowdey explains, “John Lewis embodies a sense of possibility. He is the conscious of Congress. Activism and Congressional leadership is a two way street for him, and he understands how to use both who he is and what he has done to be highly persuasive toward the issues he wants to support.”

Indeed, incorporation of a more diverse set of politically progressive voices into Congress is the next necessary step toward a more peaceful, egalitarian America. As Get in the Way skillfully argues, this goal requires the constant interweaving of stories about resolute activism into our political fabric.

“I think we can never have imaged we would finish and broadcast the film in the climate our nation is in right now,” Dowdey muses, “What happened 50-years-ago and the fight Congressman Lewis and other members of the movement were going through, have a unique ability to offer us an idea of the sheer need for persistence.”

Or, to put it in Congressman Lewis’s words, effective activism can only come “by people building and working together. We’re talking about people building a lasting peace, a community at peace with itself.”