That Dawn Porter’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble” is a documentary perfectly timed for the social and political climate of 2020 might seem like happy coincidence. Its subject is the late voting rights and racial justice leader and congressman from Georgia, a state that helped decide the presidential election and whose senate runoff races on Jan. 5 will single-handedly determine the trajectory of our democracy.
But if you ask Holly Gordon, chief impact officer of Participant, one of the film’s distributors, Porter’s drive to tell this story right now was no coincidence.
“The ethos inside the company is that we trust our artists to show us the way. I can’t believe we’re still surprised, but we’re constantly surprised how we end up with a slate of films that started production two, three, four years ago but hit at zeitgeist moments,” Gordon told IndieWire. “It feels like provenance, great luck, but then if you go back to ‘trust the artists,’ it’s what you can expect that we have four films in 2020, all of which went into different aspects around the question of right to vote.”
From gerrymandering expose “Slay the Dragon” to “Good Trouble” — both co-distributed by Magnolia Pictures — Participant’s involvement in ahead-of-the-curve films with a social impact bent is exactly why its releases are such salient tools for inspiring change and, well, participation. In the case of “Good Trouble,” Participant and its partners held 60 virtual screenings of the documentary; over 100 events supporting vote protection, and mailed out 54,000 voter registration forms nationwide — 46,000 of those were sent to Georgia voters. A campaign website helps people donate to get-out-the-vote efforts, register to vote, volunteer, and research the issue of voter access.
Turnout in Georgia was extraordinary. Over 4 million people voted in the November election, a 66 percent increase over 2016, according to data compiled by GeorgiaVotes.org. (Stacey Abrams detailed to the New York Times how increasing engagement and fighting against voter suppression helped make that happen.)
But the work of Participant and its long list of partners is far from over: Runoff elections set for tomorrow pit Republican incumbents Sen. David Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler against Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. If the Republicans win, the GOP retains control of the Senate. If the Democrats are the victors, incoming Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris will be the tie-breaking vote in a chamber evenly divided red and blue.
For its part, Participant focuses on campaigns that empower people to vote, rather than push for one candidate over another. Historically, voters turn out in far fewer numbers in runoffs than in other election cycles. “Our work in Georgia in the Senate races is really building on the work that we did around the presidential election,” Gordon said. “How can something cultural — like a sports team or Participant films — be bridges?”
Key to any of Participant’s social impact campaigns is working with other organizations. For the “Good Trouble” effort, that included the Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors, and Los Angeles Clippers. The NBA teams competed against each other in trying to reach the most fans with voter registration information. The Hawks won, and were awarded the “John Lewis: Good Trouble” trophy.
It’s also crucial for Participant to work with boots-on-the-ground organizations that intimately understand the challenges and goals of a particular task, like registering voters in Georgia. In this case, the organizations included Black Voters Matter, which works with Black leaders to build power in their communities. Wanda Mosley, the group’s senior coordinator in Georgia, said Participant’s help included printing thousands of “Good Trouble” movie posters and wristbands, compiling a toolkit for voters and volunteers, making audio from the movie available for radio ads, and of course screening the film.
Mosley described the movie as a “Trojan horse” for those previously uninterested in civic engagement. Hometown hero Lewis might be all it takes for someone to want to watch the documentary. Participant “can sneak in some civic engagement with their entertainment piece, they can reach people in a different way,” Mosley said. “This partnership with Participant was great because it really expanded the ways we could reach people, letting them know about the election and making the connection to John Lewis … it’s John Lewis, everyone loves John Lewis here.”
In addition to contributing resources, part of Participant’s role in Georgia is leveraging the kind of spectacle that only Hollywood can create. A drive-in screening in the middle of a pandemic is exciting, gets covered by local media, and the get-out-the-vote message spreads. Another piece of it is highlighting Lewis as a visible role model, which is seen in the film’s poster featuring a young Lewis jailed for getting into “good trouble.” It makes Lewis — who died in July at 80 — a little more relatable for young Georgians.
“When they see how young he was when he started his advocacy … this was a young John Lewis at 19 years old, who was still in college, who was organizing and willing to go to jail for what he believed in,” Mosley said. “I’ve heard from some younger people that they were definitely inspired and that they didn’t know he was that young.”
In December, Participant supported additional “Good Trouble” screenings, phone banks, an artist showcase, and festival as part of the campaign around the film.
As the Times reported, the runoffs themselves were a tool devised by white Georgians in the 1960s to dilute the power of Black voters. But this time around, it seems historic trends are reversing. Vox reported that more than 1.4 million had voted early in the runoffs as of December 22. Compare that to the total 2.1 million votes cast in the 2008 Senate runoff, the state’s most recent, and the approximately 1.2 million cast in 1992.