Virtual Screening and Panel Draws Thousands to Honor the Life and Work of Rep. John Lewis

Image Courtesy of NJPAC

This past Monday, I was among the thousands of people nationwide who participated in the virtual watch party and interactive, online panel discussion about Good Trouble, the documentary that showcases the phenomenal history and life’s work of the late U.S. Representative John Lewis.

Directed by Dawn Porter, the documentary is both riveting and humanistic. As I watched the film, I fell in love with John Lewis. I could not recall having seen such dignity, humility and concern for humanity consistently exhibited in someone’s behavior, especially in the battle for racial justice. The panel discussion also was illuminating and inspiring! I urge the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to make time to watch the panel, via this link.

The virtual event was sponsored by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and coordinated by NJPAC’s Special Lead Chelsea Keys. NJPAC Executive Director John Schreiber invited arts and culture organizations nationwide to participate in this historic, virtual program honoring Congressman Lewis, and some 62 other arts and culture organizations signed up. Many arts and cultural organizations had been seeking some form of social justice program, but lacked the resources, time and expertise. NJPAC became that resource, coordinating the panel, creating all the promotional materials, and distributing the materials to all of the participating organizations for use via their social media channels.

Magnolia Pictures made the film available for virtual screening and included two extra features: An interview Congressman Lewis gave to Oprah Winfrey shortly before his death in July of this year, and a one-hour panel featuring Ms. Porter and two of Lewis’s fellow original Freedom Riders—Dr. Bernard Lafayette and Dr. Rip Patton—which was filmed in July shortly after the Congressman’s death.

The turnout was remarkable and a testament to how many people are both seeking and are interested in this type of programming. Some 12,000 participants tuned in to the panel via Facebook Live, which was then re-posted to 41 different pages. Another 1,500 joined via NJAC’s Zoom link.

Monday’s live, virtual panel was moderated by Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project. The panelists were Ms. Porter; Ras J. Baraka, Mayor of Newark, NJ., and Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. US Senator Cory Booker gave the opening remarks.

Secretary Bunch worked extensively with Congressman Lewis to establish the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened four years ago this month. Secretary Bunch described the Congressman as an amazing, gentle person. At the same time, he said, Mr. Lewis was a radical with a will of steel, who was never deterred from his efforts or dreams of advancing civil rights legislation through the U.S. Congress.

Mayor Baraka discussed his introduction to Congressman Lewis as a child watching the ground-breaking, PBS broadcast of the documentary series, Eyes on the Prize, and later having the opportunity to meet Mr. Lewis at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting. The mayor stressed how important it is for young people to have a relationship with history; to be able to experience it, and to be able to connect that history to the present.

Ms. Porter talked about her vision for the documentary—how she wanted the film to showcase Congressman Lewis’ strong intellect as the result of studying; his mastery of strategic planning and preparation to execute his actions, and his courage.

There also was a great conversation about the role of artists and their work in the movement for social change, and its role in the Congressman’s life. In the film, Ms. Porter’s lens lingers on the art works on display in his home by Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. She said Mr. Lewis had a big outside life, which required a lot of energy, but his home represented his inner, peaceful world. She said Mr. Lewis loved art and the music of the civil rights movement; it fed him and helped him to prepare to go out to do battle again.

Secretary Bunch noted that culture is a reservoir from which we can draw; it can teach us how to understand diverse perspectives in ways that conversations cannot. He added that museums should prod us, challenge us and show us the past, as well as the way forward.

All the panelists emphasized the importance of voting and that the current wave of protests should lead to even more participation. Ms. Porter emphasized the importance of early voting, which she said it is crucial. The panelists were asked for a modern-day example of “Good Trouble.” They agreed that the current wave of protests, the Black Lives Matter movement and seeing so many diverse groups of young people in the streets were all examples. They urged the audience to continue their efforts to advance the civil rights/BLM movements and to change laws that have institutionalized racism.

In response to inquiries about recommended reading, they each offered a book: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson; Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight, and Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. DuBois.

The event closed with a commissioned dance by Jamar Roberts, choreographer in residence and dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The performance was made possible by the March on Washington Film Festival in memory of and tribute to John Lewis.

The screening and panel discussion were the latest program offered through NJPAC’s Standing in Solidarity program, which was launched in the wake of the murder of George Floyd to offer greater understanding of current racial disparities and as a forum for learning about the actions all citizens can take to advance the cause of equality. The next program is the PSEG True Diversity Film Series. Participants are encouraged to virtually screen the PBS documentary, “Why Don’t We Vote?”, and then watch the virtual panel discussion on Monday, October 5, 2020.

As always, I would like to know what you think. Please share your thoughts and comments below.

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