Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble

John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020)
Director: Dawn Porter

My third-grader is writing a report on John Lewis for Black History Month, so Dawn Porter’s Good Trouble was an obvious choice for family movie night. This documentary came out over the summer, just a few weeks before Lewis passed away. Lewis served as a representative for Georgia’s fifth district from 1987-2020, and it was interesting to review his career in this political moment, after Georgia has elected two Democratic senators for the first time in decades. For much of the country, Georgia turning blue felt like a huge surprise, but for Lewis and his supporters, it was the obvious — if not quite inevitable — result of years of grass roots organization to grow the Democratic party and increase access to the polls. Although Lewis is probably best known for his extraordinary example of nonviolent resistance during the marches in Selma, when he and other activists were brutally attacked by state troopers, Porter’s documentary shows how much of his legacy comes from the work he did in the decades that followed the Civil Rights Era, both as a legislator and as a mentor to budding activists and Democratic leaders.

Porter’s documentary is structured around several long interviews with Lewis, conducted in a studio with a large video screen, so that she can display documentary footage from different periods in his life and listen to his recollections. It’s a simple, poignant technique that effectively juxtaposes images of a very young John Lewis — he was only 25 when he marched in Selma — with the much older man who has seen a lot of change, as well as setbacks. Although we never see Porter, Lewis refers to her by name, and has a warm, easygoing way with her — and with everyone, it seems. He comes across as a very sweet but clear-eyed person. Here’s a typical quote: “I feel lucky and blessed that I am serving in Congress. There are forces trying to take us back to a dark time.” In addition to her formal interviews, Porter also spent time with Lewis in his day-to-day life. We see his home, meet his family, and follow him on the 2018 campaign trail, when Lewis was stumping for younger Democratic candidates like Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock.

By everyone’s account, Lewis was always a serious and single-minded person. He grew up in Troy, Alabama, the son of a farmer. As a child, he would dress for school in a tie and carry a Bible with him to class. His ambition was to become a preacher, and one of Lewis’s favorite stories to tell on himself is about how he used to preach to the chickens when he was a boy. Perhaps the most moving revelation from Lewis’s past comes from Henry Louis Gates, Jr, who researched Lewis’s family history for the television show, Finding Your Roots. In his research, Gates discovered that Lewis’s great-grandfather had registered to vote as soon as he possibly could, in 1867, after the Civil War ended, but that no one in Lewis’s family had registered after that. Lewis’s interpretation of this was that his activism was “in his blood,” but it also shows how Reconstruction after the Civil War is a project that continues to this day.

My son was engaged by Good Trouble but we had to stop a few times to explain some of what he was seeing. One particularly confusing section — for a child — was documentary footage of student protesters preparing for sit-ins. To practice nonviolent resistance, the students engaged in role-playing, with some of the students pretending to be angry and using racial slurs. My son didn’t understand what was happening and it led to a discussion of how segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented Black Americans from living freely. It was also useful to talk with him about the meaning of the title. He wanted to know: how can trouble be good? Talking with him gave me a new appreciation of the Lewis’s repeated use of the phrase “good trouble,” and how it very simply communicates that speaking up for what is right often upsets other people as it challenges the status quo. But that’s not a bad thing; it’s the only way change can happen.

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