Meet Dawn Porter, the controversial ex-lawyer directing Prince Harry’s mental health documentary

·7 min read
The Duchess of Sussex with her son Archie in the trailer for The Me You Can't See - Apple TV
The Duchess of Sussex with her son Archie in the trailer for The Me You Can't See - Apple TV

Through the obligatory glossy filter and the rousing orchestral score of the trailer for The Me You Can’t See – a documentary series about the mental health crisis facing our post-pandemic world, jointly executive produced by Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey, which airs on Friday – emerges a precise and potentially)powerful idea: of the individual who stands up and speaks out. Individual names flash across the scene, and the camera settles on one face after another (some famous, some not), each preparing to break taboo and tell the story of their psychological pain.

“To make the decision to receive help is not a sign of weakness” says Harry. “In today’s world more than ever, it is a sign of strength.”

This is the signature of filmmaker Dawn Porter, the 51-year-old inde star who, alongside Amy and Diega Maradona director Asif Kapadia, is the creative force behind The Me You Can’t See. Known for her politically engaged, sometimes incendiary state-of-the-nation documentaries, she applies a particular ethical and artistic argument – that huge and profound social issues are best addressed via individual voices – to all her work.

In 2020, she released both John Lewis: Good Trouble, about the civil rights activist and Georgia congressman who led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; and The Way I See It, about Pete Souza, the official White House photographer under President Obama, who has since become an outspoken online critic of President Trump.

“Lately, I’ve been really interested in this question of ‘What makes people get up and do something?’” she said last year. “What gets you out of your chair and into the public space?” (Being the British prince who had the audacity to fall in love with a mixed race American actress is presumably a slightly unusual answer to that question).

Details are closely guarded but The Me You Can’t See is six hours built around frank accounts of personal mental health struggles from famous figures, including Lady Gaga and Glenn Close, and ordinary people. As well as hosting individual conversations, Harry and Oprah will speak about their own experiences. Porter collaborated closely with them both on the project: “They are both very involved in the series. We have regular conversations, and it’s been really cool. They are good friends, and they really complement each other, their curiosity, their compassion” she told Elle. When she first met Harry, however, her mind was on higher things: “He’s tall. I didn’t realise how tall he was.”

Porter’s was a surprising route into filmmaking, like Harry’s. She has been directing and producing films for over a decade but before that, she had never worked professionally behind a camera. Instead, she was a high-flying media lawyer at the head of one of America’s biggest television networks. She grew up in New York, studied at Georgetown law school in Washington, and after graduating spent five years working for leading law firm Baker & Hostetler.

But the premature death of a close friend prompted her to reassess her entire career. “I wanted to take a risk and do something not safe. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to say yes to the next exciting thing that comes my way that I’m a little bit afraid of’” she says.

Trail blazer: filmmaker Dawn Porter in 2018 - Astrid Stawiarz
Trail blazer: filmmaker Dawn Porter in 2018 - Astrid Stawiarz

The first risk was a move to New York to become an in-house litigator for ABC. After 18 months, she moved into the network’s news division as director, and then vice president, of Standards and Practices. But the law had become too restrictive. “What was missing was real humanity,” she says. “I’m curious about people.” She decided to leave, despite the misgivings of her husband, who apparently said, “I don’t know why you’d leave a vice president title at a major corporation with stock options, direct deposit, health insurance, and paid time off.”

It is easy to imagine how Harry might have felt a connection to someone brave enough to break away from a comfortable institution into the unknown. She founded her own production company, Trilogy Films, and at first, she struggled to find backers. “Ultimately, gatekeepers have to be conservative – it’s expensive to do things and they have deadlines, so they just want to know that you can deliver.” A first-time filmmaker with a law degree is not the most conservative choice.

But Porter believed in her own unorthodox credentials. “Being a litigator is really good training for being a filmmaker,” she says. “We take something complicated and try to make it understandable.” She was also raised in a trigger-happy household: her father David Porter was one of the very few black American photographers working in New York in the Seventies. “We used to make super eight films for fun. We had big portraits of big beautiful black women in our house. I’ve had a camera in my hand since I was little” she told MSNBC in 2015.

David died when Porter was 12. Harry was also 12 years old when he lost his mother; perhaps their related experiences of early bereavement drew him to Porter’s work.

The focus of that work, however, is political rather than personal. Her first feature, Gideon’s Army, made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, told the stories of public defenders in the South who work against staggering caseloads and low pay to help defend those from low-income communities accused of a crime. The film premiered at Sundance in 2013, where it scooped awards like so many ice-cream flavours: the Sundance Film Festival Editing Award, the Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award, the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award for Media and the Arts, and the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize. It was also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, a Cinema Eye Award, and an Emmy.

She followed it up with Spies of Mississippi (2014), which told the little-known story of a state-sponsored campaign in the Sixties to undermine the Civil Rights Movement, and Rise: The Promise of My Brother’s Keeper, which chronicled President Obama’s programme to improve the prospects of young black boys in America, and for which she interviewed Obama. Her most controversial work to date came about when Porter was in Mississippi filming Spies and read a story in the local newspaper about the State’s last abortion clinic being in danger of closure.

The resulting feature, Trapped, is a cinematic record of the wave of anti-abortion legislation (known as Trap laws: Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) that has swept America over the past five years, chipping away at a woman’s right to choose. (It’s not over: this very week the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to Mississippi’s 15-week ban on abortion, which could end up overruling Roe v Wade).

The film was immediately decorated and divisive (polling suggests America’s pro- and anti-choice support splits almost exactly 50-50). When it opened at Sundance in 2016, armed police officers were stationed outside screenings, checking peoples’ bags for weapons. Porter wasn’t fazed: “If you are a pro-choice, you can’t be silent” she told The Guardian, before smuggling in some of the abortion providers featured in the film into screenings to directly address the audience.

In bringing her on-board to shape their new series, Harry and Meghan are sending a message about the kind of art they want to make, and the political agenda that art will serve. She is a far more radical choice than her famous collaborator Kapadia, whose films are beautiful but resolutely personal portraits. Porter is an unapologetic liberal; her films argue for racial equality, women’s reproductive rights, and more funding for the justice system.

While The Me You Cannot See trailer doesn’t exactly scream hard-hitting political protest art, the introduction of Porter to the Archewell team is arguably more significant than this first, rather vanilla-scented project. In collaborating with her, the Sussexes are getting seriously politically.

The Me You Can’t See is on Apple TV+ from Friday