If America had its own path to sainthood, John Lewis would have made it there long ago. The 80-year-old Civil Rights icon and congressman has navigated decisive American moments with superhuman finesse, making him a natural cinematic character. Dawn Porter’s absorbing documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” doesn’t try any fancy trickery to energize that saga, instead deriving its appeal from the sheer resilience of the change agent at its center. As with 2018’s Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary “RGB,” Porter offers a closeup look at a historic figure somehow still in the game decades down the line, and seemingly too good for this world. “As long as I have breath in my body,” Lewis says to the camera, “I’ll do what I can.”
At a more stable moment for American society, “Good Trouble” might not register as much more than a hagiographic celebration. Yet context is everything: Premiering in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Juneteenth, at a peaceful protest set a day before Donald Trump storms the city with one of his race-baiting, fear-mongering rallies even as the state’s coronavirus figures surge, “Good Trouble” provides an ideal contrast in leadership. The movie acknowledges the Trump administration, but never wastes a frame on the reality star cartoon who occupies the Oval Office, or bothers with the inane epithets he’s hurled at Lewis in recent years. Instead, it emphasizes the consistency with which Lewis has fought the establishment and combated racism through some of the tumultuous moments in American history. In the midst of this one — and a pandemic that has forced superhero fantasies to the backburner — there can be no doubt that John Lewis is the movie star of the summer.
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Watching the persistence of Lewis’ determined gaze through the years, from archival footage to recent material, it seems as if he’s been on the frontlines almost as long as they’ve existed. While newer generations of Black politicians recall the power and progress of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Lewis was there, as the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. Some look back at the March on Washington as the turning point in large-scale protests for change, but Lewis was there, at the microphone. And he was spitting distance from Robert F. Kennedy when the presidential candidate was shot and killed in 1968, stimulating Lewis’ own desire to run for office.
Lewis’ story provides a neat conduit for outlining the history of Civil Rights post-1960. Moving on from a modest childhood in the Alabama Black Belt, where he was raised to pick cotton and tend chickens, Lewis found his way into the center of the fight for Black change in America, finding his footing as a Freedom Rider and the philosophy driving peaceful protests. That mentality didn’t always work in his favor, as “Good Trouble” acknowledges Lewis’ resistance to the Black Power movement that culminated in losing his perch at the SNCC to Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael; that shift, however, sent Lewis on a new path that culminated in his infiltration of the establishment two decades later, unseating longtime pal Julian Bond in a messy showdown that troubled their activist history together.
As a documentary portrait, “Good Trouble” is strictly by the book, lacking the kind of raw emotion and immediacy of Porter’s previous activist projects “Trapped” (about abortion rights) and “Gideon’s Army” (public defenders). But Lewis embodies the virtues of committing to a cause that can be found throughout Porter’s work, and the movie gives him plenty of room to run the show. One recurring motif finds Lewis sitting in a dark room, watching footage from seismic moments in his career, and even he looks astonished at how much he has endured. Perhaps that’s because he’s still in the thick of it. “As a nation and a people, we’re not quite there yet,” he tells Porter.
“Good Trouble” isn’t the first documentary on Lewis’ life — the 2017 PBS effort “Get in the Way” got there first — but Porter’s competent blend of vérité footage from the past two years provides a more immediate glimpse into the way Lewis’ crusade has carried over to the present. While it doesn’t encapsulate the most dramatic developments of 2020, it certainly makes the case for one of the better minds in Washington at this tumultuous moment. In a series of electrifying speeches, he calls for citizens to stir up “good trouble, necessary trouble” to save democracy. And clearly, people are listening: As a kind of cinematic addendum to the euphoria of 2019’s “Knock Down the House,” Porter’s documentary includes interviews with 2018 midterm winners Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar as they attest to Lewis’ inspirational power. They’re joined by the likes of the late Elijah Cummings and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, making it clear that reverence for Lewis is uniform across the Democratic Party.
And, in some cases, goes beyond it. Lewis has helped sustain the Voting Rights Act across multiple presidential administrations, and as voter suppression remains a key concern, he’s one of the few remaining political figures to find some measure of success in reaching across the aisle. “Good Trouble” tracks all that as a means of setting the stage for the 2020 election even as it doesn’t acknowledge those stakes in explicit terms.
It’s so rewarding to watch Lewis campaign for new generations of leadership, from Stacy Abrams in Georgia to Lizzie Fletcher in Texas, that it’s somewhat jarring when “Good Trouble” ends without acknowledging the 80-year-old’s recent health struggles or his visibility throughout the pandemic and George Floyd protests. The movie doesn’t touch his cancer diagnosis from last December, nor does it squeeze in any of the seismic sociopolitical developments of 2020. Despite its timeliness, “Good Trouble” could have used a final chapter to make it clear that even this dogged legend can’t escape the boundaries of mortal life.
Of course, Lewis knows he won’t be around forever, and “Good Trouble” chronicles the urgency that comes out of that realization. By pushing Trump out of the picture, Porter makes it clear that Lewis’ purpose is much grander than any single assault on democratic institutions. He’s a living testament to the value of staying in the battle as long as it rages on. Lewis was fighting for America’s future long before any recent conflicts, and the documentary makes a welcome case for keeping hope alive.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” premieres on Friday at Circle Cinema in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Magnolia releases it in theaters and on demand July 3, 2020.
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