Following the summer release of Dawn Porter’s acclaimed documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the director is back with her second nonfiction film of the year, The Way I See It, about Pete Souza, the official White House photographer for Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. While two seemingly different stories, one is about the life and career of the late congressman and civil rights activist and the other follows the photojournalist’s professional journey after leaving the White House, Porter views them as two chapters within the same book.
“John Lewis kept saying if you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, then say something, do something, get into good trouble,” the filmmaker tells ET. “And I think Pete is getting into good trouble.”
After spending years working for Obama, Souza underwent a public transformation from a “chronicler of history” to a critic of the Donald Trump administration by using photographs of the former president to contrast with actions of his successor, which was captured in the book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.
Trained to report the facts, Porter says it was no small thing for Souza to become an outspoken activist decades into his professional life. “I definitely feel these are chapters in the same book about how you express patriotism, how you express love of country and concern for other people,” Porter continues.
With The Way I See It now in select theaters and airing commercial-free Friday, Oct. 16 at 10 p.m. on MSNBC, Porter talks to ET about what made her want to tell Souza’s story, finding a balance between capturing his work and revisiting Obama’s presidency, and how she hopes these films resonate ahead of the election.
ET: What made you want to be a part of telling this story?
Dawn Porter: I was finishing up work on a film about Congressman John Lewis and was really deeply moved by the process of working on that film. And John Lewis’ big encouragement was “speak up, use your voice.” And when I met Pete and saw what he was doing, I was like, that's exactly what he is doing. So, it just felt like a perfect project to shift to because it was like living the wishes of the congressman.
And then, you know, it’s really the photos. It’s the photos and I needed some happiness in my life. Things felt so dark and a little bit hopeless and I wanted to remember myself, but also remind people of what kind of decent, empathic leadership looked like.
While it’s very much about Pete’s journey, at times, it’s hard not to feel like this is also as much about the president. Was it hard to strike a balance in focus?
The title of the film is The Way I See It and Pete was in a room that so few people are in and he took almost two million photographs. And so the portrait that he shares with us is so unique. So, I really wanted for as many people as possible to experience those photos. But I also really wanted it to be about the presidency, about that office. I think sometimes it’s hard to think about how the presidency affects us on a daily basis. And I think what the photos show are people who are always thinking about other people as they make decisions that affect all of us. I think now we know what impact the presidency has on people and we know the difference between strong leadership and chaotic leadership, but I really wanted to go on that journey and have people see it through Pete’s eyes.
Does that factor into the film’s release and the fact that we’re coming up on the presidential election, when people are probably looking back at Obama and then comparing his time in office with Trump’s?
Absolutely. And it’s not just Obama, it’s also President Reagan. I mean, you could not have people with two more different political philosophies than Reagan and Obama. And so the film is not an analysis of either one of those presidents or the policies of either of those presidents. It’s about a more fundamental thing, which is human decency, empathy and kindness. And, you know, about respect for the office of the president. And that is not something we’re seeing today. We can never say enough about it, that it’s abnormal. Pete says he wouldn’t have participated in this film if Mitt Romney was president or another kind of regular Republican. We are in abnormal times and in that vein, it’s important to point that out.
You said Pete took two million photographs. What kind of process did you go through to determine which ones to highlight or which stories to tell here?
I studied a number of Pete’s presentations and speeches. And then the editor, Jessica Congdon, came up with themes that we wanted to explore through images. And it really comes from Pete’s speeches about empathy, hard work, compassion and intelligence.
Then we created these bins of photos and stories that we could possibly lean into. We were still shooting when the world closed up [amid the coronavirus pandemic] so we had to shift and we couldn’t get as many behind-the-scenes stories as we wanted. And I couldn’t spend as much time with Pete as I wanted. So, the pictures take a lot more center stage. But that’s OK. It’s his journey through what he saw in the time that he was. I think that he shared a really important perspective.
Did you have a favorite photograph or one that you were drawn to the most?
I have many. I actually really love -- and they’re impacted by the day and the time and what’s happening in the news -- but I really loved the photos of Obama when he looks like he was thinking very hard. Like, he’s wrestling with things because that’s what you want in a leader. You know, very early on, Pete and so many other people pointed out that easy questions don’t get to the president. Easy questions can be dealt with by others. It’s only the most important questions for our whole country that gets to the president.
How do you hope people connect not only with The Way I See It but also with John Lewis: Good Trouble especially as we head into November and think about the election?
One of the things I have mourned the most is our lack of confidence in government and government officials. So I hope between both films, you see a portrait of people who do have the good people in their minds that it helps restore some confidence in our government and our leaders. But these are people who are fighting for the better part of our souls. John Lewis always said look for people to come together. And I think Pete is saying we should reject the darker impulses of society and look at what is a universal human good, which is concern and care and empathy.