Why nation's civil unrest is 'Good Trouble': John Lewis documentarian talks civil rights hero's legacy, protests over George Floyd killing

Kevin Polowy
·6 min read
John Lewis in Selma, Alabama (Magnolia Pictures)
Protestors and police officers on Bloody Sunday in 'John Lewis: Good Trouble,' a Magnolia Pictures release. © Spider Martin. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Story originally published June 4.

"It's a difficult time that we're going through in America," Georgia congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis says in the early moments of Dawn Porter's insightful and inspiring new documentary Good Trouble: John Lewis. "My greatest fear is that one day we're going to wake up and our democracy is gone."

It was 2018 when Rep. Lewis made those remarks, so you have to wonder how he felt waking up June 2, hours after police in riot gear used tear gas to remove peaceful protesters from President Donald Trump's path to a photo-op at Washington, D.C.'s St. John’s Church and the commander-in-chief threatened to deploy the U.S. military to American cities to battle civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd's killing by police.

"Doesn't that just land so differently now? I have to say, I'm not easily shocked. I was really shocked and stunned by that," Porter, a former ABC News journalist whose other film credits include the docs Gideon's Army (2013) and Trapped (2016), told Yahoo Entertainment in a June phone interview promoting her film about Lewis, the “conscience of the U.S. Congress” who died on July 17 at age 80 after a six-month battle with cancer. "I can certainly understand political difference. But this is beyond being Republican or Democrat. This is just human."

John Lewis in 'John Lewis: Good Trouble' (Magnolia)
John Lewis in John Lewis: Good Trouble. (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

As for her iconic 80-year-old film subject: "He is calm. He understands. He's seen this before,” Porter said at the time. “And he has the benefit of knowing that we can come out of it but we have to be vigilant. We've all gotta do things a little bit differently."

Throughout his long life and career, Lewis — born in Troy, Ala., in 1940 — eventually came to personify peaceful protest perhaps more than any American since Martin Luther King Jr. In his battles against segregation and for voting rights, he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early-mid 1960s, became one of the original 13 Freedom Riders in 1961, spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, and worked with Dr. King in Selma, where his skull was fractured by Alabama State Troopers who attacked protesters with tear gas and batons as they knelt to pray.

Lewis proudly says he was arrested 40 times in the '60s — and five times since — in Good Trouble, which traces his life and legacy, from being inspired into activism by Rosa Parks to the three-plus decades he's spent as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. "He's never waited for permission," Porter says. "And he's consistent in his method. He hasn’t lost his moral center, even if others lost theirs."

As some of the protests set off by the murder of Floyd escalated into rioting and looting, Lewis tweeted on May 30, "I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive."

"I can't speak for him, but I am positive he understands the rage and fury so many people are feeling," Porter said. "If you think about the confluence of events: We have black and brown communities being disproportionately being affected by this [coronavirus] disease. They are also more likely to have lost their jobs, to not have any income, or to be frontline workers with very low income but lots of exposure opportunities. So you have all of that, and you're still getting murdered by the police? It's just too much. So that all spills over."

The documentary's title Good Trouble stems from a phrase Lewis used often and spells out in the film while addressing supporters at a Texas campaign rally for Beto O'Rourke, the former congressman who narrowly lost a bid to unseat Ted Cruz from the Senate: "My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something! Do something! Get in trouble! Good trouble. Necessary trouble."

Porter has no doubt that the civil unrest that's followed Floyd's killing, which came in short succession after the killings of Breonna Taylor by police and Ahmaud Arbery by civilians, qualifies as good trouble.

"I think so, absolutely. A hundred percent," she says. "Because you know what we can't do? Say it's someone else's problem. That somebody else is gonna assure that our liberties remain protected. Because that's not happening, we don't have that luxury right now. So I do think this is good trouble."

Lewis said as much during an interview with CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King in June: “This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all-inclusive. To see people from all over the world taking to the streets, to the roadways, to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to do what I call getting in trouble.”

Dawn Porter, director of 'John Lewis: Good Trouble,' a Magnolia Pictures release. © Henny Garfunkel. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Dawn Porter, director of 'John Lewis: Good Trouble,' a Magnolia Pictures release. © Henny Garfunkel. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

As former President Barack Obama wrote in an essay that same week, the protests could ultimately mark a turning point when it comes to real change in the social justice system. "A lot is needed," Porter says. "I completely agree with President Obama's statement the other day where he said, 'It's not either politics or protest.' You need both. We need people urging action in the streets, and then we need people taking action in the courts and in the legislatures. … We have to work for the society that we want."

Lewis announced in late 2019 that he was fighting stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was a rare figure who worked in both worlds, and Good Trouble highlights his transition from outside agitator to the halls of power when he was elected to serve Georgia’s 5th District in 1986.

I hope they'll understand how intentional and how large his contributions to American history and political discussion have been,” said Porter when asked what she hopes viewers take from the documentary. “And I hope that they will not allow his efforts to be in vain. We didn't fight this hard for it to come apart this way."

John Lewis: Good Trouble opened in theaters and on-demand July 3.

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