That Netflix’s new documentary series Bobby Kennedy for President happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the ambitious politician’s historic 1968 presidential run is a matter of pure happenstance. The seeds were first planted two years ago, when director Dawn Porter was approached by lawyers who represented Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian extremist who gunned Robert F. Kennedy down 83 days into his campaign.
“His lawyers basically said, ‘Our client is still in jail, and we think he should get out, and we’re working on that, and are you interested in making a film?’” Porter tells me at the Tribeca Film Festival. “I thought in order to understand the Sirhan story, you first have to understand Bobby Kennedy.” As Porter dug deeper, the parallels between Kennedy’s era of tumult and our current sociopolitical climate became unavoidable.
“The Vietnam War was raging, civil rights people were more insistent, it was tense, and the country was divided,” Porter says. “Bobby Kennedy was calling for reconciliation and calm, and that message was resonating with the country, even though the Democrats were fighting. What a different approach. We’re creating conflict now, rather than trying to stop it. The similarity is that, even in this really tumultuous time, people marched and rose up and paid attention and came through it. As much as some of us feel like this chaotic government is frightening, and you want to pull the covers over your head, you can’t stand by and wait for somebody else to fix it.”
Told in four parts, Bobby Kennedy for President uses a potent mix of interviews and archival footage to piece together how Kennedy went from JFK’s doting brother (and his dogged attorney general) to a man on the brink of the presidency. It’s a comprehensive portrait of not only Kennedy himself, but the external forces that helped transform him into a full-blown cultural and political phenomenon.
While the interviews—conducted with close Kennedy allies, like Rep. Neil Gallagher and former ambassador William vanden Heuvel—help add an emotional weight to the proceedings, it’s the archival footage that reveals what a force of nature Kennedy really was. Porter first heard of the footage when she was working as a producer at ABC News, and her friend in the tape library brought it to her attention. “You know when something gets stuck in your brain? I just needed to know what was on those tapes,” Porter says.
By partnering with Netflix, Porter finally had the financial means to get them digitized. “I didn’t know what was on them,” she explains. “It could’ve been a $10,000 mistake.” While Porter and her team poured over the 2,000 reels of film, she couldn’t help but feel the magnitude of what it meant to lose Kennedy—a man who embraced civil rights at a time when it could have meant political suicide. “It was almost a joke with Netflix,” she says. “We would do a rough cut and send our executives this whole memo of impressions, so we would keep having these back-and-forth conversations. And one note that kept coming from them was, ‘Could you keep him alive?’”
Instead of somebody who was embracing civil rights leaders, we got a racist in the White House. You can’t tell me that doesn’t make a difference.
For many African Americans, including Porter’s own family, the Kennedy brothers were heroes, or “honorary black,” as she puts it. “I was a tiny baby, so they weren’t at the top of my mind, but because of their embrace of civil rights, and the way they fought alongside people like [Martin Luther] King and [Harry] Belafonte, we were told that these were ‘good white people.’” But it wasn’t until she started making her eye-opening documentary Gideon’s Army—about three public defenders fighting for criminal justice reform in the Deep South—that she confronted the influence Kennedy had on African Americans on a granular level.
“I did an interview with Attorney General Eric Holder, and I said, ‘What inspired you to go into politics?’ and he said, ‘I was a pre-teen living in Queens, and I saw the Kennedy brothers, and they just were so inspiring. I felt maybe I can do something like that.’ Then he took me on a tour, and he’s sitting at Bobby Kennedy’s desk in the Justice Department, and he had a picture of Bobby Kennedy over his desk. I thought, ‘There’s something there,’” the director explains.
And while the documentary largely paints Kennedy as a man with great moral conviction, Porter is careful not to whitewash over his many contradictions, including the wiretapping of King and other civil rights leaders, a decision he made while attorney general. At one point in the documentary, Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis—who also served as Kennedy’s campaign aide—says that initially, Kennedy “didn’t fully understand the race situation,” but eventually came around when he “saw people suffering.” Porter argues that Kennedy’s devout Catholicism also played a major role in his awakening.
“He took the messages of religion to heart, which is you are empathetic, you help people less fortunate than yourself, and you’re open to learning and understanding,” she said. Porter also credits Kennedy’s interactions with civil rights leaders like Harry Belafonte, Dolores Huerte and James Baldwin in particular. “Inviting James Baldwin was not a politically popular move. He didn’t invite the traditional establishment,” Porter says. “He invited the equivalent of Black Lives Matter to dinner, and they had an explosive exchange. These guys were tough on him. JFK was more of a buttoned-up politician, but Bobby Kennedy was a passionate fighter. Once he committed to something, he really committed to it. He was really moved by those interactions.”
Despite the underlying message of hope that ripples through the documentary, there’s also a pervasive sadness that sharpens into focus in the fourth and final episode. While Porter walks us through his assassination in excruciating, painstaking detail, the question of “what if” looms heavily over the proceedings.
“I hope that some things would’ve been better,” Porter says when asked abut what might’ve changed had Kennedy not been killed. “I think that there’s a lesson in leadership and coalition building, and listening. There’s a lot of ‘what if?’ Maybe we’re romantic about it, but I don’t think so. We went from Bobby Kennedy, who literally made the centerpiece of his campaign reconciliation among warring factions, to Richard Nixon, who starts our nation’s war on crime, with all of the dog whistles that came with it. Also, Nixon, we know now, was a racist. Instead of somebody who was embracing civil rights leaders, we got a racist in the White House. You can’t tell me that doesn’t make a difference.”
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