It’s hard to imagine a more timely film than “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” Dawn Porter’s flawed but compelling portrait of the civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman.
Serving his 17th term as a member of Congress, the Georgia Democrat, 80, has spent more than six decades fighting for equality for Black Americans, from marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, where he was badly injured by police officers, to getting on the bus as one of the original “Freedom Riders” who protested against segregation in transportation.
Along the way, he has been arrested dozens of times for getting into what he calls “good trouble, necessary trouble” to fight against injustice.
One of his most enduring missions has been battling against voter suppression in Black, minority and poor communities, a quest he continues to this day.
For much of the film, Porter (“Bobby Kennedy for President,” “Trapped”) combines rare, often hard-hitting archival footage with present-day interviews with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Cory Booker and the late civil rights activist Elijah Cummings, to whom the film is dedicated.
It’s fairly standard operating procedure for a documentary, but to her credit, Porter does try to shake up the formula by experimenting with painterly animation, nonlinear storytelling and, most effectively, filming Lewis while he watches old, often-harrowing footage of himself and his cohorts engaged in what he has long believed is a battle “for the soul of America.”
Vintage video of a nonviolent protest training seminar he attended as a student is eye-opening, while stories about the would-be minister preaching to the family chickens as a child and viral footage of the aged orator dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” add charming moments of levity.
But Porter seems to struggle with what to leave in and what to leave out: His long marriage to wife Lillian, who died in 2012, is barely a footnote, and her coverage of his fraught 1986 campaign against fellow civil rights activist Julian Bond for his seat in Georgia’s 5th Congressional district stands out awkwardly from what is otherwise arguably a too-gushing portrait of a legitimate living legend.
Despite the uneven editing, though, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” is essential, enlightening viewing for this moment, when the Black Lives Matter protests and sudden spotlights on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Confederate monuments and Juneteenth have glaringly revealed how little of America’s dark racial history most people really know.
Watching heavily armed police stampeding peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, angry white diners throwing milkshakes at sit-in protesters and Black voters waiting in four-hour lines to vote in elections both past and present, it’s hard not to agree with Lewis’ assessment that “We have come so far. But as a people and as a nation we are not there yet. We have miles to go.”