Dawn Porter’s feature length documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble is both an up close and personal biographical study of the activist and longstanding public servant, as well as a compelling examination of the history of the Civil Rights movement, through Lewis’ vital role in it. What results is a fascinating and inspiring chronicle of an extraordinary life of dedication, and a timely look at the nation’s vulnerable voting rights in the lead up to the 2020 general election, while thousands of citizens continue to take to the streets to get into what Lewis calls “good trouble, necessary trouble” to protest police brutality, institutional racism and white supremacy.
After six decades of activism and over thiry years in Congress, Lewis is still fired up, acknowledging what continues to motivate him at the beginning of the film: “There are forces today trying to take us back to another dark period”. And he does not show any sign of slowing down, as Porter demonstrates with her not so much fly-on-the-wall, but by necessity fly-on-the-move, look at typically packed working days for the octogenarian. His unwavering fighting spirit is well known, as exemplified in his passionate, fiery speeches, and the Congressional sit-in Lewis led in June 2016 demanding then House Speaker Ryan allow a vote on gun control legislation following the massacre at Pulse nightclub, but Good Trouble allows us to see him in quieter, more private settings. He’s good humoured, clearly cherishes life, and loves to dance, as evidenced by the viral videos of him getting down to Pharrell Williams’ Happy.
As archive video and photography is used throughout the film, we often see Lewis’ own instant reaction to it as he sits in front of a large screen, occasionally remarking that it’s something he’s never seen before. It’s an effective device, that brings a vividness and immediacy to Lewis’ recollections, we see in his eyes that he’s being transported back to seminal moments in his younger years like first meeting Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 50s, making one of the keynote speeches at the March on Washington in 1963 and being serious injured on Bloody Sunday in 1965. As historically significant as many of these events are, Porter doesn’t just acknowledge that Lewis was there, but gives us a sense of what it was like to be on Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, as we see images of the the use brute force, tear gas and batons.
Regarded as one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, we hear Lewis recount being arrested forty times during the 60s and a further five times since being in Congress; inspired by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. to put his life on the line for what he belived in. As well as direct to camera interviews, with Lewis often looking right down the barrel of the lens, deep into our eyes it seems, there’s also footage of speeches given to gatherings large and small, for instance on the campaign trail as he lends his support during the 2018 midterms to candidates like Beto O’Rourke in his Senate bid and Stacy Abrams as she ran for Governor of Georgia. We also see him take in the news of their losses, as well as the relief and joy at regaining control of Congress; unselfconscious moments captured by Porter. The two have worked together twice before and there’s clearly a trust between them that allows for the camera to be in the room without Lewis paying it much attention. The apparent voter suppression efforts that blighted the midterms is something that Lewis wants us all to be concerned by. As he looks through the morning papers at one point he says “my greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone.” The film examines in some detail the ramifications of the 2013 Supreme Court decision that invalidated part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The film takes in Lewis’ years as a legislator, including highlights from some of his speeches in the House such as arguing in favour of the 2010 repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We’re also given an insight into his childhood through his own recollections of preaching to the chickens on the family farm. Further glimpses into the personal life of the man come by way of interviews with his sisters and brothers, who we learn would sometimes help with his cotton picking duties so he could attend school. There’s also a reflection on the concern for his safety that Lewis’ mother and siblings had for him when he was involved in the Freedom Rides, marches and sit-ins. We meet his charismatic long-serving chief of staff Michael Collins, who clearly adores working for Lewis. Away from DC, Lewis shows us around his art collection at home Atlanta, Georgia, sharing stories about life with his late wife, and some endearing moments of him with his cats, and feeding his sister’s chickens. We also get an idea of what it’s like to go out in public with the man, with so many wanting to come up to him, get a handshake, a hug or a selfie and to tell him what a hero is to them, or just to thank him; it seems like there’s an outpouring of love for him wherever he goes.
One imagines Porter had to fight off a long list of luminaries wanting to praise Lewis, and with some skillful editing by Jessica Congdon, she wisely choses to keep to the interview contributions succinct and varied. Among the impressive list of interviewees are Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder, Cory Booker, the late Elijah Cummings whom the film is dedicated to, as well as Republican Jim Sensenbrenner whom Lewis worked with on the voting rights legislation, fellow civil rights activist James M. Lawson Jr., and prominent progressive freshmen Democrats inspired by Lewis’ career such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. President Obama is notably absent, but the film does feature footage of the men together; their hands clasped as they walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, and Lewis receiving the Medal of Freedom from Obama in 2011. Lewis lets us in on private words the men shared at Obama’s inaugurations and he speaks movingly about how emotional he felt at the 2009 event: “I was crying for Dr King, for President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, my parents and grandparents and hundreds of thousands who didn’t live to see this”. Adding that thinking about what’s going on now in this country is enough to make him cry again.
With recent documentaries about nefarious figures in the Trump orbit, such as Roy Cohn, Jeffrey Epstein, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, it’s a welcome antidote to watch a film about a man as admired as Lewis, who has been referred to as “the conscience of the U.S. Congress”. With Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, the recurring word used to describe the man was ‘evil’, with Lewis it’s words like kind, brave and principled. That’s not to say that the film is a hagiography, taking in the bitter 1986 primary contest to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional district, with Lewis going up against his friend and fellow Civil Rights activist Julian Bond, and even suggesting that Bond be given a drug test. It’s a section of the film that creates a sense of balance and Good Trouble is all the richer for it. This may not be the definitive John Lewis documentary, in fact it’d likely take an entire series for that, but it is a frequently moving, fitting tribute to a national hero that should inspire those who see it to exercise their right to vote come November and remind them to never take that right for granted.
By James Kleinmann
Magnolia Pictures and Participant will release John Lewis: Good Trouble in theaters and on demand Friday July 3rd 2020.
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