Dawn Porter Changing Narratives in Documentaries

Turning her lens on overlooked or obscured chapters of history has earned documentarian Dawn Porter a place in the list of the 10 Black women filmmakers who have “most shaped the cinema landscape of the 21st century,” according to the influential movie-ranking website, Rotten Tomatoes.

The former attorney’s noteworthy catalog includes John Lewis: Good Trouble, the 2020 CNN Films biography of the late Congressman and civil rights icon. “They always say, ‘Don’t meet your heroes because they will disappoint you,’” Porter says of her experience: “John Lewis exceeded my expectations.” That same year also saw the release of The Way I See It, Focus Features’ profile of chief official White House photographer Pete Souza, who chronicled the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. It became MSNBC’s most-watched documentary ever.

Most recently, Porter garnered praise for The Lady Bird Diaries, a “mesmerizing” (The Guardian) all-archival documentary about Lady Bird Johnson that drew from the personal recordings she made during her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.

In addition to winning critical applause, Porter has earned numerous awards, including a Sundance Film Festival prize and a Peabody. The founder of Trilogy Films production company sees documentary-making as an opportunity to “put people in a world that maybe they hadn’t seen before; something that felt like the truth as I could tell. There’s no one truth, right? There’s how you see it. And so that’s why the storyteller matters, because how I see something is going to be very different than [how] somebody who does not have my background sees it.”

Justice is a central theme of her work, from her first project, 2013’s Gideon’s Army, about three Black public defenders working in the Deep South, to last year’s acclaimed Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court. The four-part Showtime series examined the landmark reversal of Roe v. Wade and the historic appointment of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the court’s first Black female justice.

Graduating from Georgetown University Law Center, Porter practiced law in Washington, D.C., for five years before joining ABC Television in its legal department, later moving over to its network news division. She got to see how programs were created, taking those lessons to A&E Television, where she worked at the height of the reality TV era.

“I kept seeing a lot of shows that were about people who looked like me but not by people who looked like me, and they were very sensational,” she says. They didn’t always handle the Black experience with the complexity and richness that was required, she felt. “That was really my motivation,” she says. “I wanted to be talking about all the people I see who are struggling and great, or just great, but not necessarily pulling their earrings off all the time. I mean, there’s a place for that, and I like that too, but there’s a place for the whole gamut of our experience, and it’s not just the people yelling at each other in the street.”

No small jobs

Porter may not have had the production back- ground to start with, but she had the passion dating back years. Her father was a photographer, “and we used to make Super 8 films when I was little,” she recalls. “And then, as I started seeing how things were put together, how you shoot something and you edit it, I realized, ‘Wait, I could do that. That’s not so mysterious.’”

Porter’s legal background was an asset as she pursued her new career. “What does a litigator do?” she says. “We take something complicated, and we make it understandable, and that’s what documentary does. You take something broad, and you put it together in storytelling in a way that people can understand what you’re saying.”

For someone who says she never actually planned on being a filmmaker—she just kept taking the next step in front of her—Porter has some advice for young people pursuing a career like hers.

“Learn from the ground up,” she says. “Understand that when you are hired as an intern, sometimes getting lunch is the most important thing you can do… particularly in documentary, there are no small jobs. Sometimes, I see a lot of young people who want to kind of pretend that they have all the answers already. We don’t expect you to have the answers. We expect you to be curious, to be on time (which means early)… but understand that it’s not all about you. You’re part of a team.”

Respect is a big thing, too. Because of the kind of topics she addresses, “We’re with people who are often in distress,” she notes. “That person is having a horrible time, and the least that I can give them is when they’re interviewing with me that they feel respected… they feel like a whole person.

“I do a lot of work with people who are in prison, and there’s a lot of shame in having served time. It’s important to me that we do not define people by their prison sentences or by the act that they may or may not have committed; that we define them by who they are now and who they’re trying to be. So, being respectful is my kind of place of entry.”

In something of a lighter vein than some of her other projects, next up is a documentary, produced with Jamie Foxx, about R&B great Luther Vandross, who died in 2005. Porter believes the film is important in recognizing Vandross, who started out singing jingles and appearing in early episodes of Sesame Street, for the “creative genius and arranger and showman that he was.”

The documentary highlights the important part the late British rock star David Bowie played in launching Vandross after the two met when he sang on Bowie’s 1975 Young Americans album. Porter tells how Bowie would have Vandross open for him at shows to allow him to develop his talent.

“People are coming to a David Bowie concert, and he sends out this dark-skinned Black man singing R&B,” Porter says. “We talk a lot about white artists extracting from Black music: Bowie really was the opposite here. He was pushing Luther forward… why haven’t we heard that story? It’s not that David Bowie was hiding it; he was proud of it. Who are the gatekeepers that are not telling us where we are in all the things that we know.

There’s no one truth, right? There’s how you see it.


Drawing on hours of Lady Bird Johnson’s personal recordings, Dawn Porter’s The Lady Bird Diaries paints an intimate portrait of what Hulu calls one of “the most influential and least understood” first ladies in history.


I start with my mother, who is a very generous person—even if she didn’t have [more than] $2, she’d give you one if she thought you needed it more. She defaults to “People are good.” She starts by assuming everybody’s friendly and everybody wants to help because that’s how she is.

My third- and fifth- grade teacher, Miss Murner, put me in the accelerated groups. She would have each kid bring in their favorite book, and when I brought in mine, she made a big deal out of it. It was just like, “Wait, somebody thinks I’m smart.” And then, my sixth-grade teacher; the same thing. How those teachers help you see yourself is really important.

I’ve had a couple of really good bosses. At ABC News, [senior vice president] Kerry Smith, when I wanted to have a family, she really showed me how I could have a career and a family and be the kind of mother I wanted to be, and that was very important to me.

And then a very big waymaker is my husband [David Graff]. He has never wavered in the idea that I could do this, never. He was always saying, “Why not you?” Having these people helps you overcome your self-doubt; they can see things that you don’t see.

From an interview with Louis Carr