Dawn Porter on working with Oprah, Prince Harry and tackling tough truths in ‘Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer’

The award-winning director now has two new projects to be proud of

As the director of so many important and illuminating documentaries, Dawn Porter knows how to tell a story.

Read More: Meghan Markle makes cameo in trailer for Oprah, Prince Harry’s mental health series

In 2020, the award-winning documentarian reminded the world of a real Black superhero with John Lewis: Good Trouble and helped us all relive the magic that was Barack Obama’s presidency in The Way I See It. 

Now, she has two new projects that are already making waves and tackling tough subjects we all need to be paying attention to. She teamed up with Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry as a director of their latest AppleTV+ offering, The Me You Can’t See. The project that features superstars and regular folks describing their experiences with mental health is already causing quite a stir. 

Our Bodies, Our Stories: A Celebration Of Unstoppable Black Women
Filmmaker Dawn Porter during the Our Bodies, Our Stories: A Celebration Of Unstoppable Black Women at MACRO Lodge on Jan. 28, 2019 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

“It’s such an important topic for people of color. We don’t talk about it. We keep our things that make us vulnerable hidden from our families or from our friends or from our places of work,” she told theGrio’s Entertainment Director, Cortney Wills, during a recent episode of our latest podcast, Acting Up. 

“Knowing that Oprah was behind it, I knew that wasn’t going to be an issue. We were going to look for people who look like me and look like her and we were going to tell those stories with compassion and understanding and not being voyeuristic and not abusing people. We were going to make them feel safe. We were going to honor them.”

During the intimate conversation with Wills, Porter details how she reacted when she got the voicemail for the gig from Oprah during a dental appointment and even reveals what she brought for Baby Archie when she first met Prince Harry.

She also explained how Oprah was laser-focused on tapping into all of the right resources to tell these stories and how moving it was to see her and Prince Harry open up about their own traumatic experiences. 

 “The cherry on top of the cake was Oprah opening up and Prince Harry opening up. I can’t speak for why they were motivated, but I can say I know they appreciated the openness of all of our subjects and it didn’t occur to either of them to not also be as open or to share as much as we were asking from everybody else, and they did that,” she explains. 

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“I think they were more worried about the focus being on them because they’re so well known. And so that was more their hesitancy than sharing personal things. They didn’t they didn’t hold back.” 

Now, Porter joins the ranks of several other filmmakers who are tackling the Tulsa riots on-screen to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the tragedy we still know so little about. 

Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer will debut on NatGeo on June 18 and will certainly shock viewers with some poignant facts they never knew. 

Even though it has been 100 years since the massacre, a lot of people only learned about it after seeing it depicted in the series premiere of HBO’s Watchmen.

“That’s where most people’s experience of the race massacre in Tulsa is; through popular television and through [the HBO series] Watchmen,” Porter says. “I feel like we actually owe a big thank you to Watchmen for that. It was such superior filmmaking that people were intrigued, but also couldn’t believe this was real, and that’s how I came to it,” she added. 

“What I discussed with National Geographic is that it wasn’t just Tulsa. There were actually race massacres in 26 states across America and when you think of that history, it just kind of floors you.”

The documentary explores several other incidents that occurred just before the Tulsa massacre, and draws some striking parallels to the social climate that fueled the bloody battles then and the ones we are facing now. 

Despite all of the devastating details revealed in Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer, the doc also manages to highlight just how strong and successful Black people are now and always have been.  

“I really really wanted to lean into this and why I think it’s important to have creators of color making these projects is the resilience. I am so proud that I came from these people…Let’s talk about the reason why they were targeted. It was because they were successful. It was a backlash to success,” says Porter. 

Tulsa Race Massacre
injured men are taken to hospital by National Guardsmen after the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“And when you frame the conversation that way, doesn’t that make us see ourselves differently? Because so often the stories about the Black community are about not being able to accomplish, not being able to thrive, not being successful, about being victims. And here it’s they were too good; even targeted because of that.” 

This isn’t the first time one of Porter’s projects honed in on just how threatening Black excellence can be. It was a point that hit home for her while making the Obama doc, The Way I See It. 

“I think for decades, Black people were trying to prove we were good enough. Maybe we need to accept that we are more than good enough and understand that envy can be dangerous,” she says.

“We cannot tell these stories too many times. Wherever you find these stories, like wherever you access them, I think you need to watch all of them. I’m so excited and honored to be in this time of Black filmmaking where we have the opportunity to have more than one Eyes on the Prize.

Read More: ‘Good Trouble’ director Dawn Porter on the legacy of Rep. John Lewis

We’re having people seek us out to tell these stories and that’s what we need more of. We need to keep filling this pipeline with creators who have different takes and different styles. The truth at the core of it remains the same and that it’s we are targeted for our excellence.”

Check out the full conversation on the Acting Up podcast.

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