Bobby Kennedy for President begins its Netflix run in April


Bobby Kennedy was really important in black households, says filmmaker Dawn Porter. “I just kind of took that for granted. But I didn’t know why,” she said.

Porter explores Bobby’s relationship to the Civil Rights movement, among other things, in her four-part series “Bobby Kennedy for President,” which begins airing on Netflix in April, 50 years after R.F.K. was assassinated  in the Ambassador Hotel the night he won the Democratic nomination for president.

Parts one and two of the series will be shown during the Montclair Film Festival. The series dramatizes Bobby’s life from 1962 to 1968, helping his brother John win the 1960 presidential campaign, becoming Attorney General under John, recovering from J.F.K.’s assassination, and running for president himself.

Porter, who lives in San Francisco, is a former Montclairite. “Bobby Kennedy for President” is the third film she’s had in the festival, following “Gideon’s Army” (2013) and “Spies of Mississippi” (2013).

Dawn Porter, right, interviews Dolores Huerta. COURTESY MONTCLAIR FILM FESTIVAL

“Bobby Kennedy for President” uses archival material, digitized for the first time and much of which has never been seen before. The film includes interviews with people who worked with Bobby, including Dolores Huerta, Rep. John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman, among others. In this tumultuous time, Porter said, it’s good to remember another volatile time. “It was a noble profession to be a politician. This was a good time for that message,” she said.

In the first episode, Peter Edelman recalls working under Bobby as Attorney General. Edelman says that Bobby didn’t have to demand loyalty. “Some people don’t have to have a loyalty oath, because people believed in the mission,” Porter said.

Her grandparents had a picture of the Kennedy brothers. J.F.K. phoned Coretta Scott King, “a revolutionary thing for a presidential candidate to do,” she said.

And it was Bobby who called the prisons when Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for sitting at a lunch counter and sentenced to hard labor. The phone call, Porter said, probably saved his life. That action swung the black leaders to Kennedy, she said, which probably swung the election to J.F.K. And that endorsement, coming after the call, changed history.

Finding out that story, then learning about Bobby’s relationship with Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin and discovering that Rep. John Lewis had worked on Bobby’s campaign, engaged her curiosity and determination to explore. It was Rep. John Lewis who ensured that Bobby address the crowd the night of M.L.K’s death, she said.

Researchers and editors looked through hundreds of hours of archives for the documentary. “We wanted to make that archive the star,” the filmmaker said.

Candid color footage of both Jack and Bobby surrounded by their families are some of Porter’s favorite shots. “You feel you’re in a personal moment. That more than anything recreates the longing for what was lost. When you see that John Kennedy was not just lost to a nation but lost to his young family, and those were losses that would never be repaired. We wanted people, without being overly dramatic about it, we wanted people to feel that, what the country felt at that point,” she said.

The people who speak in the film are not historians, but people who knew Bobby personally, including his high school roommate and labor leader Dolores Huerta.

“It’s important to have that first-hand witness experience,” she said. And the audience can then judge the source. If you know Peter Edelman was Bobby’s legislative assistant, then you know he believed in him and worked for him and his agenda. In the end of the series, you see that many of the people who worked with Bobby are still involved in politics and public service, Porter said.

And it’s inspiring in the archival footage to see people looking so young, because they were young then, she said. “We talk about the Parkland kids and how young they are, well, they’re 10 or 15 years younger than these politicians who were making these big decisions.” While experience matters, so too does openness and willingness to work. She hopes the conversation will be about people who care about public service and institutions. “There were people like this once, there will be people like this again.”.