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JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE (2020) review

July 3, 2020

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produced by: Erika Alexander, Ben Arnon, Laura Michalchyshyn & Dawn Porter
directed by: Dawn Porter
rated: PG (for thematic material including some racial epithets/violence, and for smoking)
runtime: 96 min.
U.S. release date: July 3, 2020 (virtual cinemas)

 

U.S. Congressman John Robert Lewis turned 80 this year and is currently receiving treatment for Stage IV pancreatic cancer. That last part isn’t mentioned in “John Lewis: Good Trouble”, but knowing that from recent news and considering all the ground covered in Dawn Porter’s absorbing documentary, which looks at the impressive life of this civil rights leader, legislator and comic book writer, it’s impossible not to see him as an American hero. It’s a insightful look at the life of the longtime Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District.

The subtitle refers to what Lewis has considered his approach to activism over the past six decades, “My philosophy is very simple,” Lewis is heard reflecting, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just – say something, do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble. Save our country. Save our democracy.”

 

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His activism and his role as a politician has indeed got him into trouble, which is something he mentions directly with a sense of humor. In the documentary, Lewis is seen speaking to a group of listeners at a 2018 outdoor rally in Dallas in support of first-time candidates Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred, mentioning how he’s been arrested, “40 times…and since I’ve been in Congress, another five times. I’m probably gonna get arrested again for something.” He can be seen working his way through the crowd with his entourage, receiving expressions of gratitude for his years of service and even signing copies of his award-winning autobiographical graphic novel March (which chronicles the Civil Rights movement of the 60s from someone who lived it and worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.), all in a deliberate, humble manner.

“Good Trouble” is a good look at what the 17-term Congressman has done in the service of his country, but the best moments of Porter’s film are the ones in which we follow the personal side of Lewis. Porter and her crew follow their subject back to his place of birth in rural Troy, Alabama, where he reunites with his siblings. Lewis shares his own reflections about his childhood, but it’s endearing to see his siblings share what young Lewis was like, how he would wear a tie to grade school and carry his Bible with him and how he could be seen preaching to the chickens. Lewis and his brother can be seen visiting the graves of their parents and other family members and one can glean how it’s not lost on them how the world of racial segregation and discrimination has changed (and not changed) throughout the years. Whether it’s Lewis reading the paper at his Atlanta home, giving us a tour of some of the artwork that hangs there, or reflecting on his late wife, Liliian Miles Lewis (who died in 2012), the time spent getting to know Lewis one-on-one really elevates the film.

 

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Some viewers have known of John Lewis for some time, primarily for his work as a young man with Martin Luther King, Jr. as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) fighting for voter registration. However, he’s been around long enough that some may have been introduced to him by actor Stephan James portrayal of Lewis in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film “Selma”. Regardless how you come to a knowledge of who John Lewis is, Porter’s documentary is a reminder that getting to know someone who has been beaten and bloodied for equal rights and yet maintained a non-violent approach all this time, is integral in understanding what a hard-worn pursuit of freedom and true democracy looks like.

“Good Trouble” benefits from including footage of both a reflective modern-day Lewis and archival footage of a young Lewis in action. While DuVernay’s dramatic recreation of “Bloody Sunday” was powerful, what’s more powerful is hearing an elder Lewis recall his own experience, “I thought I was going to die on that bridge” of being beaten by Alabama state troopers. It wouldn’t be the last time he would be beaten for his activism. He also participated as a Freedom Rider, traveling from Washington D.C. to the deep south, being one of the first to be beaten as soon as he stepped off the bus at Rock Hill, South Carolina.

 

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Porter also includes grainy video footage of Lewis sitting in the grass near a lake, talking with other civil rights activists, Bernard Lafayetter, Jr. and Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr., about their plans and it comes across as a personal quiet moment of reflection from the past. One of the more intriguing archival inclusions are clips from the non-violent workshops that Lewis would attend and/or hold, in which attendants would be trained in how to respond peacefully to jeering racist remarks from crowds or violent recourses from police.

These stark black-and-white images and footage of a younger Lewis during those events coupled with the sound of the (still-strong) voice of a man who has endured and persevered in his fight for change, really make “Good Trouble” an important and relevant viewing experience.

How Lewis fought did indeed change over the years as “Good Trouble” shows how Lewis went from a civil rights leader to a politician, hoping to take part in change from within a system that at one point didn’t have a place for someone of his color.

Throughout the inspiring film, former and current politicians (including the late Representative Elijah Cummings, who died last year) can be seen talking about Lewis and his impact on the American landscape and their own lives, but the most engaging and memorable scenes are ones in which the camera simply holds on Lewis, especially as the film closes and we see him say, “I still believe We Shall Overcome.” We should all maintain such hope and put it in action.

 

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RATING: ***

 

“Good Trouble” is currently playing in Theatre 2 at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, where the documentary is also offered as a Watch-at-Home option. View details here.

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