One couldn’t pick a more appropriate film for this moment in history than Dawn Porter’s engaging John Lewis: Good Trouble.
The 80 year-old civil rights leader and US Congressman from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District is tailor made for a film since Lewis’s life has spanned the Jim Crow south to the halls of power. Porter’s documentary doesn’t do anything fancy and it doesn’t need to; Lewis’s personal story and the historical footage speak volumes.
Jumping back and forth in time, the film tracks Lewis’s humble beginnings as the son of sharecroppers in rural Alabama. While a student at Fisk University, he organized nonviolent sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville and was arrested and jailed many times. As one of the original Freedom Riders who rode buses across state lines to desegregate public transportation in the early 1960s, Lewis was beaten by the angry mobs that met the buses at stops all over the South. Lewis talks about how he and the other riders dined at a Chinese restaurant in Washington DC before boarding the bus for New Orleans. The riders thought it might be their last supper.
He worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. As the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was beaten by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.
Lesser known parts of Lewis’s life and work make up some of the more fascinating and relevant parts of Good Trouble. These include his resistance to the burgeoning Black Power movement of the late 1960s when one of its leaders, Stokely Carmichael, succeeded Lewis as head of SNCC. Lewis talks about being close to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1968 and how that spurred Lewis to run for office. After winning a seat on the Atlanta City Council, Lewis ran for Congress in 1986 and managed an upset victory in the primary against his longtime colleague and friend, Julian Bond.
Porter deftly mixes archival footage and photographs with present-day interviews with Lewis as well as young members of Congress including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, all of whom talk about Lewis’ inspirational influence and strong work ethic. The film doesn’t cover his recent cancer diagnosis but since Lewis is promoting the film’s release, it is a testament to his continued resiliency in a lifetime of advocating for social justice, equality and public service.