JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE – Brandy McDonnell reviews

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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.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Lewis: Good Trouble is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for July 17, 2020

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Brandy McDonnell

Brandy McDonnell

Brandy McDonnell writes features and reviews movies, music, events and the arts for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma's statewide newspaper, and NewsOK.com, the state's largest news Web site. Raised on a farm near Lindsay, Okla., she started her journalism career in seventh grade, when she was elected reporter for her school's 4-H Club. Taking her duties seriously, she began submitting stories to The Lindsay News, and worked for the local weekly through high school. She attended Oklahoma State University, where she worked for The Daily O'Collegian and earned her journalism degree with honors. She worked for three years at small Oklahoma dailies The Edmond Sun and Shawnee News-Star. In 2002, she joined The Oklahoman as a features reporter, writing about movies, the arts, events, families and nonprofits. She moved to The Oklahoman's entertainment desk in 2007. In 2004, she won a prestigious Journalism Fellowship in Child & Family Policy from the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Along with her membership in AWFJ, she also is a founding member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. Brandy writes The Week In Women blog for AWFJ.org.