John Lewis: The Kind of Good Trouble We Need

John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020)

Directed by Dawn Parker

Aspen Films, 96 minutes, PG




2020 has seen the passing of too many good people. Among them is Congressman John Lewis, who died of pancreatic cancer in July, two months before a documentary about his public life was released. John Lewis: Good Trouble tells of his courageous battles against racism and injustice over the course of his life. As one of the tags to the film sums it: thousands of protests, 45 arrests, and 33 years in Congress.


Lewis was the last remaining speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, an event best recalled for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” King’s voice was silenced by an assassin in 1968, but that of John Lewis remained steady and strong over the next 52 years. The documentary takes its title from a famed Lewis aphorism, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Director Dawn Parker presents a portrait of a man who found his calling in the civil rights movement when he was barely in his 20s. When the Freedom Riders sought volunteers, Lewis was there. When it was time to put bodies on the line to cross the Pettis Bridge into Selma, Alabama, Lewis was present. He was part of CORE, chaired SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) for four years, took part in voter registration drives, shepherded community organizing projects, and when SNCC fell under the decidedly violent sway of Stokely Carmichael, moved away from it and toward politics. In 1986, he challenged his friend Julian Bond in the primary, defeated him, and was elected to the House of Representatives. In his 17 terms, Lewis never got less than 69% of the vote in Georgia’s 5th District.


John Lewis was battle-tested, which partially explains why he seemed to have a perpetual scowl on his face. One of the joys of Parker’s documentary is that we see Lewis with his metaphorical hair down. (He went bald early on.) His serious demeanor also came from the fact that he once dreamed of being a preacher and delivered sermons to the chickens on his parents’ Troy, Alabama, farm. As we learn from the film, Lewis retained a fondness for chickens for his entire life–including collecting silly chicken figurines that clashed with the magnificent art in his elegant Atlanta home. Lewis always smiled when talking about chickens. This, and the warmth he exuded when encountering supporters, were seldom-seen sides of the late Congressman.


His serious public countenance was linked to a core belief: “Freedom isn’t a state; it’s an act.” Lewis believed in non-violence, was an optimist, and loved his nation, but he seldom hesitated to call out racists and enemies of freedom. He explained his vote to impeach Donald Trump with these words: “When you see something that’s not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, do something.” Those words defined both Lewis’ civil rights activism and his purpose for being in Congress.


Like most documentaries, there are numerous talking heads, some of whom are impressive and articulate, and some of whom are less so. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is among the well-spoken, as are Corey Booker, Nancy Pelosi, Bill Clinton, and Representative Ilhan Omar. Surprisingly, Omar comes across as more sincere than Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, or Hillary Clinton, the latter three of whom clearly admired Lewis, though their remarks seemed more scripted.


Another small flaw is that the documentary often drifts toward hagiography. It is so tied to Lewis the activist and politician, that at times it feels like John Lewis’ greatest hits. Porter dug up some great archival footage, but we don’t get much of a sense of Lewis’ private life. Porter glossed Lewis’ decision to take on Julian Bond and his use of a dirty trick to do so. Bond was gracious in defeat, but confessed a rift in their relationship, which Porter mentions and drops. We also learn very little about Lewis’ marriage, other than his deep sorrow at Lillian’s passing in 2012. His musician son, John-Miles, doesn’t get much attention either.


Decisions must be made when making a biography that gives the sweep of a person’s life, hence I’m inclined to overlook the lacunae in Good Trouble. My takeaway is that Congressman Lewis was that rarest of birds in American politics: a man of conscience. Need I say that we live in a post-truth society? Or that in the age of robber baron narcissism we need more public servants driven by morality?


Rob Weir    



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