This is the time. As America’s streets are once again flooded with voices screaming for human rights, the time is now for the views, the heart, the words, and the power of the man who is John Lewis.
Director Dawn Porter’s new documentary, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” is an honest look at one of the most important men who ever fought for the civil rights movement.
We are lucky that this man is still alive, as he gets to help narrate his own life story.
What is “good trouble”? According to Lewis, fighting for voting rights, protesting the mistreatment of black men and women, getting arrested during non-violent demonstrations, clamoring for justice in our streets; this is the good trouble that John Lewis wants all Americans to get into and this is the trouble that has been the driving force in Lewis’s life and career as an activist and U.S. congressman.
At eighty years of age (Lewis was seventy-eight at the time of filming), John Lewis is an American hero. He has been one of the strongest voices for change during some of the most important moments in modern American history and, to this day, continues his fight for human rights.
Witness his non-violent struggle as he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. Lewis tells us how he was beaten many times and arrested, even more. We learn that marching with Dr. King and being a part of the togetherness that would lead to desegregation is where he found his courage.
Through archival footage we see John Lewis fighting on the front lines against the government’s inaction. He was there, arm locked in arm, with Dr. King, in the Selma march to Montgomery; “I thought I was going to die on that bridge.” He was there at the march on Washington and spoke at the podium (Lewis is the only person who spoke on that historical day who is still alive today). He was there when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Whenever the call for justice came or there was a shift in the winds of change, John Lewis was there.
The film follows its subject starting with his Alabama childhood where, although raised to pick cotton, one of his teachers told him to “read, read as much as you can.” From there he educated himself and found his way to the civil rights movement where he made himself an important face for change in black America.
Lewis became one of the Freedom Riders (this movement led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965) and was a leader of the peaceful protest philosophy. However, while being a strong voice for the rights and respect for black Americans, he resisted the burgeoning Black Power movement of the time, a stance that would lead to Lewis losing his seat, as head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, to Stokely Carmichael.
Director Porter fills the frame with powerful footage of the Selma march and the violent police reaction to those peaceful protesters and to the protesters at the lunch counters and voting rights marches in the South. We are witness to the disgusting ways with which many in the racist South tried to crush the rights of Black Americans. But this is balanced with footage of an anniversary march across the famous bridge where what was dubbed “Bloody Sunday” had occurred. It is still striking to see John Lewis flanked by former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama commemorating that powerful time in history. This is an already historic moment made even more moving by its context within this film.
It is stunning to see Porter sit her subject in front of a screen and have him watch the events, observe his role, as American history unfolds. His face remains stern, but his eyes reveal the pride and sadness of a struggle hard-fought yet one that continues, to this day. After seeing much of the footage, Lewis comments, “… we’re not quite there yet.”
What Dawn Porter achieves with her film is to get to the intimacy of Lewis’s life, crusade and career. She lets us learn, through Lewis’s own words (and interviews with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi and Elijah Cummings, among others), how his contributions to civil rights, the ongoing fight for voting rights, and his work in the United States Congress have fueled the inspiration in future generations of politicians and activists.
A smart move for this film was to leave the Trump administration out. Lewis has been at the forefront of the voting rights fight for over four decades and with voter suppression once again a very real danger, the current regime (and its dastardly attempts to suppress the Black vote) need not be referred to. Lewis has had bi-partisan success on voting rights issues before and we know he is still in the D.C. arena, doing what he can.
Another clever decision of Porter’s was to not address Lewis’s recent cancer diagnosis. While it is, evidently, a very important aspect of anyone’s life, unfortunately, this buoyant story of hope does not need to rehash this. Lewis himself has not made his cancer battle public, nor should this film. Kudos to Porter for this.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” is a film of urgency and purpose about a man who embodies both and who stands as a testament to the drive to fight on for justice and democracy. Lewis loves his country and its people and refuses to give up on these.
In his own words, “As long as I have breath in my body, I’ll do what I can.” In these we should all find our courage to fight on, too.