In addition to the documentary, patrons will get access to videos of Oprah Winfrey interviewing Lewis shortly before his death and of director Dawn Porter with two of the original Freedom Riders — activists, including Lewis, who rode buses throughout the South in 1961 to challenge segregation.
The program concludes with a live virtual discussion Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. with Porter, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University.
“I’m struck by how we’ve never done this before,” Bunch said, “not brought the collective power of the arts together. This is an example of reaching across the country and making sure we’re all talking from the same point, all speaking from the same hymnal, as it were. Cultural institutions have to use this time to do everything they can to help a country in crisis.”
Released this summer, the documentary features archival photographs, rare video and candid conversations with Lewis and fellow politicians and activists. It tracks the Alabama native’s rise in the civil rights movement and his long career in Congress, where he introduced the bill creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“It captures the personality of John Lewis,” said Bunch, NMAAHC’s founding director. “In some ways it is easy to capture the history, but [the movie] captures the personality, in a way that helps us understand the strength of this man. People didn’t know how funny he was, how generous he was. And how he really did go out of his way to make life easier for other people.”
The national watch party offers hope and possibility at a time when the country is hurting, Porter said.
“I’ve heard people say things like ‘It’s healing. It’s a balm,’ ” Porter said. “It’s a unifying kind of film . . . that says you can have ethical leaders, people who are good, in government. We are in this period when we are doubting government as an institution. This reminds people that government is made of some selfless leaders who really are interested in the collective good.”
Porter was delighted to work with the network of cultural centers to offer a collective — if virtual — viewing experience, one she says Lewis would have loved.
“This idea of a collective viewing is unexpected and brilliant. It shows the creativity of arts institutions,” she said. “I think we’ve seen how much we need the arts these days. They are essential. This confirms that.”
The national watch program grew out of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s “Standing in Solidarity” initiative, programs launched in response to the social justice activism that has swept the country this summer. The roster of films and discussions aims to help the community learn about the issues and take action to promote racial equality.
Taking the film and panel discussion to a national audience made sense for several reasons, said NJPAC president and chief executive John Schreiber.
“It expands the potential audience for an important and timely documentary, and models how cultural centers can and should engage with their communities around social issues,” Schreiber said.
“Our sector needs to be present at this time,” Schreiber added. “It’s a way for performing arts organizations to get started if they’re not presently advancing social action initiatives, and to deliver John Lewis’s message about the importance of citizen engagement and action on issues of race, equity and voter participation.”
Each participating cultural center is promoting the film on its website, where patrons can rent the film for $12, with $5 donated to the host organization. (Patrons have 30 days to start the film once they’ve rented it and 72 hours to finish it once the streaming starts.) They can register for the virtual panel or can view it on NJPAC’s Facebook page.
“Cultural centers have huge constituencies, and many patrons are engaged and they want to know more,” Schreiber said. “The fact that we now have 59 arts centers [involved] means we’ve struck a chord.”