It’s a bittersweet time to get to know a little more about John Lewis — the longtime congressman (D-Georgia) and icon of the civil rights movement died last week at the age of 80. But the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” directed by Dawn Porter, may be just what many of us need right now: a loving tribute to a great American life, well lived and full of his trademark “good trouble.”
And it lets us look back at Lewis’ life alongside him: Porter shows him watching footage of himself as a young man, from his days as a Freedom Rider (risking his life toward the goal of integrating public transit in the South), his passionate speech at the March on Washington in 1963, his march across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on what became known as “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. The congressman watches his younger self intently and quietly; you wonder what, exactly, he was thinking.
The film shows us Lewis’ roots as the son of Alabama sharecroppers, through warm recollections from his siblings. (A smiling sister shares that Lewis was so serious as a teen he wore a tie every day in high school.) It’s clear how, very early on, his philosophy was formed: Lewis, noting that his parents were always saying “Don’t get in the way! Don’t get in trouble!,” says he was arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more times while in Congress and “probably again.” When you see something that is wrong, he says, you have to act; the resulting trouble is “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“Good Trouble” gives equal time to Lewis’ civil rights legacy and his congressional accomplishments (which frequently go hand in hand, such as his guardianship of the Voting Rights Act). A host of colleagues — longtime congressional figures like Elijah Cummings (who jokes about constantly being mistaken for Lewis), Jim Clyburn, Nancy Pelosi; newer faces like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar — share thoughts about Lewis, in standard documentary format. Their presence is valuable, but it’s more moving to follow Lewis through an airport or a typical day of comings and goings, as Porter does, and watch how everyday people respond to him. They hug, clasp a hand, murmur words of admiration (the word “hero” comes up a lot), and Lewis patiently gives each of them a moment; you find yourself wondering how he ever found the time to get anything done.
Though battered repeatedly — shown in shocking footage — in the course of advancing civil rights (Lewis’ skull was fractured by a police officer’s nightstick on that day in Selma), the congressman believed throughout his life in the power of nonviolent confrontation. “Good Trouble” spends some time exploring that philosophy, which Lewis learned and taught through workshops. Hearing him discuss it is moving and inspiring — and particularly resonant today. “When you lose your sense of fear,” Lewis says, “you’re free.”
“Good Trouble” was completed and available to view before Lewis’ death from cancer; it ends on hope and possibility. “I still believe,” says the congressman. “We shall overcome.” May the good trouble continue, in his name.
“Good Trouble: John Lewis” can be rented for streaming on multiple platforms, including Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube and many more; see johnlewisgoodtrouble.com/watch-at-home for more information. However, you can support local businesses by streaming it through the website of a local moviehouse; currently the Ark Lodge, SIFF and Far Away Entertainment (which owns the Admiral, Varsity and other local theaters) are offering it.