A version of this story about “Bobby Kennedy for President” first appeared in the Miniseries/Movies issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
When Dawn Porter set out to make a documentary series about a man who ran for president in 1968, she didn’t expect to find a link to the man who occupies that office today.
But the director of Netflix’s “Bobby Kennedy for President” found a Donald Trump connection while working on the four-part Netflix series. In a twist that could startle viewers, the doc points out that the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was shot and killed in 1968, was later owned by none other than Trump, before the Los Angeles Unified School District wrested it from him in a court battle.
“I couldn’t resist that,” said Porter of her decision to include the Trump factoid. “But also, I think Bobby’s story does speak to our times. When our president speaks and people don’t necessarily believe that he’s going to tell the truth, that is a very dangerous place to be. Bobby’s story says that leadership matters, morals matter.”
The film story also speaks to the ability of a person to change. Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago this month in the middle of a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, was a man of contradiction: a lawyer who worked on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hearings in 1954 but became a symbol of progressive ideas, a U.S. attorney general in the ’60s who authorized the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. but also pushed for racial equality.
“If we had 90 minutes, I don’t think we could have done justice to the process of change that he went through,” said Porter. “It was a long process, and it was important for me to show that change does not happen overnight.
“He put himself in a position to meet and talk to people who might be critical of him, and he really listened to them. Today, we don’t see people reaching out like that.”
The four-part series covers a broad expanse, from Kennedy’s upbringing in a rich Massachusetts-based family to his work on his brother John F. Kennedy’s successful 1960 presidential campaign to his controversial tenure as attorney general to his grief in the aftermath of his brother’s 1963 assassination and his subsequent decision to run for president himself.
“It’s a huge story, the Kennedys,” said Porter, whose previous films include the Emmy-nominated “Gideon’s Army” and the PBS doc “Spies of Mississippi.” “I wanted to allow people to experience that story, but even with four hours we had to make some deeply painful cuts.”
The series relies heavily on archival footage, but also uses the voices of people like campaign aide Paul Schrade and congressman and activist John Lewis. The assassination takes place at the end of Episode 3, with the entire final hour devoted to what came next, including conspiracy theories about the possible existence of a second gunman.
“I felt like it was important to acknowledge the aftermath,” Porter said. “With the killings of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Bobby, people were thinking that anyone in government who cares about poor people is going to be killed. And understanding that history is important to understand where we’ve come to today.”
But for Porter, the story also provides reason to hope that we can move beyond this divisive era.
“The Bobby Kennedy phenomenon is that this was a man who was running on a platform of equality, of racial and economic justice, and that’s what people loved. And if we were that in the 1960s, it’s hard to believe we can’t be that today.”
Read more of TheWrap’s Miniseries/Movies Emmy issue here.