Film

Review: A Lifetime of Civil Rights Activism Explored in John Lewis: Good Trouble

As the country engages in an urgent and necessary conversation on racism and inequity, it’s tempting to think of much of the history of this particular issue as just that, the sort of thing that is behind us, only being revisited as a means to understand how best to move forward. A documentary like John Lewis: Good Trouble reminds us that, in fact, not only is the cause of civil rights and racial equity very much a present-day fight but the landmark events that are well-known milestones in the struggle didn’t actually happen all that long ago. Chronicling the life and work of Representative John Lewis, now 80 years old and a long-time Congressman from Georgia, Dawn Porter’s film lays out just how much of this history the civil rights activist has been alive to see—and just how much of it he has impacted, as well.

John Lewis

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Born in Troy, Alabama, in 1940, Lewis began a life in activism early, writing to Martin Luther King Jr. at the age of just 17 to seek help in a case against a college that had denied him admission because of his race. King invited Lewis to meet him, and “the boy from Troy” began his work on the front lines of the fight for equal rights in earnest. From the symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to speaking to the masses from the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington, Lewis has been a part of all the most historic civil rights moments for more than the last half century. In 1987, he assumed his seat in  Congress, one that he has maintained since.

Good Trouble is a competent enough account of a great man’s life and work. Porter skillfully weaves together the Congressman’s personal history, including interviews with several of his siblings (Lewis is the third of ten children), a touching account of his relationship with late wife Lillian Miles, and plenty of archival footage of the young man in his early days of activism. As Lewis is very much still with us, Porter allows him direct screen time as well, moments for him to share exactly what a particular achievement or experience meant to him. In this way, the documentary is a fairly conventional one; when the subject is a single person with a laundry list of impressive accomplishments to recount, one can only get so creative about how to express them on film. A few well-designed montages share clips of early speeches and recount Lewis’s many run-ins with the law in response to his activism; the portion of the film devoted to the many bills Lewis has been a part of ushering into law smartly consolidates no small amount of work and influence.

With so much to cover across so many years, if the film falls short anywhere it’s in how it errs on the side of Lewis’s professional milestones and misses a chance to peel back the polish of the politician’s office to introduce us to the man himself. Porter takes time to explore Lewis’s 1986 primary campaign for Congress, when he ran against Julian Bond, a friend and considered favorite for the newly open 5th District seat. The campaign caused tension not only in Lewis’s friendship with Bond, but within Atlanta’s Black community at large, as the two men were embraced very differently by the electorate—Lewis won the primary (and eventually the seat), though many attributed it not to the Black community’s support but to white voters who endorsed him over Bond. It’s a small segment in a film that has a lot more to say, but it’s one of the only portions of the film that feels properly exposed to the light of day, everything else presented in a fuzzy, flattering sort of glow.

Nevertheless, Good Trouble is a worthy time capsule for a man who deserves a nation’s unending gratitude and respect. Lewis is the epitome of a public servant, a man who serves in office to serve the people who elected him and one who, even more than 30 years into his tenure in office, continues to speak truth to power, to fight for what’s right and encourage each of us to aspire to a better future for all. The House of Representatives is lucky to have a stalwart like Lewis in their ranks; we are all lucky to have a film that so aptly captures his impact and legacy.

John Lewis: Good Trouble is now streaming as part of Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema, and in-person as the theater reopens on a limited basis. Seating is limited, and tickets must be purchased online in advance.

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