'John Lewis: Good Trouble': Film Review

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
A pep rally for an American icon.
7/3/2020

The remarkable story of Civil Rights icon and long-time Congressman John Lewis gets the documentary treatment from director Dawn Porter.

Politicians love to remind us that they “marched with King” during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. But when 17-term Congressman John Robert Lewis says it in front of a crowd of Texans before the 2018 midterms, it really means something. A civil rights icon, Lewis has spent his life getting into what he calls “good trouble,” and director Dawn Porter (Bobby Kennedy for President) has captured his remarkable story in a new doc of the same name.

Dating back to Lewis’ first lunch counter sit-in as a college student in Nashville, Tennessee, in the late 1950s, he has been arrested no less than 40 times for protesting against injustice; some of those arrests happened during his 34 years representing Georgia’s fifth Congressional district.

The sheer volume of archival footage and black and white stills in John Lewis: Good Trouble, combined with interviews from some of Lewis’ past and present colleagues, has a powerful visual effect. And Tamar-Kali’s punchy yet reflective score imbues the pic with an upbeat modern tempo.

Overall, the doc is what you’d expect: a 90-minute look back at a man, now 80 years-old, who stood up to the oppressive Jim Crow south and is one of the last leaders still around to tell the tale. Good Trouble is more symbolic than it is eye-opening, and that’s not necessarily a problem. It’s the film equivalent of a textbook, telling us everything we want to hear about Lewis — even though most of it we already know — and arriving at a moment when reflecting upon America’s long history of racism is more relevant than ever.

Porter tells Lewis’ story in a non-linear fashion, employing a series of time jumps that swing widely between recent and historic beats. That does some of the work of making a doc that contains 80 years-worth of information about Lewis’ life feel less congested. Unfortunately, Good Trouble too often puts forward a run-of-the-mill narrative that counts on our intrinsic adoration of what Lewis represents to make an emotional impact, rather than earning it on its own.

Lewis is well respected on both sides of the aisle, and interviews with members of Congress naturally take up a lot of real estate in Good Trouble. The late Congressman Elijah Cummings, to whom the film is dedicated, provides some levity when he tells us how he’s often mistaken for Lewis in airports. Porter also makes sure to include interviews from the four freshwomen in Congress known as "The Squad": Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. They all say how much they look up to Lewis and respect the example that he set for their generations.

It does seem wrong, though, that we get to hear The Squad praise Lewis but not Maxine Waters or Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congressional Black Caucus colleagues with whom Lewis has worked for decades. (It's hard to imagine that Representative “Reclaiming My Time” Waters was unavailable for an interview.) However, Porter does include CBC member Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina. Lewis and Clyburn became friends during the Civil Rights movement long before either got elected to Congress.

Congressman Lewis has lived much of his life in public, and the doc’s boundaries around his personal life are clearly marked. Porter briefly includes the 2013 death of Lewis’ wife, Lillian Miles Lewis, but Lewis doesn’t comment on it directly. His son John-Miles Lewis notes that walking through an airport with his father is “tedious,” but doesn’t say more than a couple of sentences in the entire film.

There are a few, albeit easy-to-miss, moments where Lewis sheds some of his politician armor. These snippets allow us to witness a man who, despite all the cruelty he has personally experienced, still manages to carry inside him the innocence of a little country boy from Troy, Alabama — the boy who delivered sermons to chickens and is as comfortable with the cow and horse on his family’s farm as he is speaking before a teeming crowd at the historic 1963 March on Washington.

As far as insight into Lewis as a human being goes, the playful father-son-like relationship he has with his chief of staff, Michael Collins, provides the richest glimpse. In the doc’s opening scene, we see Lewis at an obtuse angle from the back, then in profile close up. Finally Collins, a Lewis staffer for 20 years, enters the frame to adjust Lewis’ tie and straighten his lapel so he looks sharp for the interview he’s about to tape for this very doc. (It’s obvious that Collins takes this part of his job as seriously as he does the heavier lifting required on Capitol Hill.)

Porter uses Collins to set the tone for what emerges as a big part of the film’s visual language: Collins’ physical proximity to Lewis. By the end of the pic, the two feel like sidekicks. It’s one of several ways Porter reminds us that Lewis’ heroism has always hinged upon the support of a team.

If you’ve seen Porter’s better-known documentary features, Good Trouble might come as a bit of a disappointment. Porter has a real gift for telling underdog stories about advocates who often labor thanklessly in the shadows of fragile institutions, like the embattled Southern abortion clinic (Trapped) or the under-resourced public defender’s office (Gideon’s Army). But Lewis, of course, doesn’t live in the shadows — not anymore at least. He is famous and almost universally admired (this guy being a prominent exception) and his story has been told multiple times in multiple formats over the years. One would hope that Porter would offer us something unexpected about such a well-known leader, but there ultimately isn’t anything more probing than a pep rally here. And if you want to see Lewis grapple in hindsight with the complexities of the Civil Rights movement or share his perspective on racial justice activism today, there, too, the film comes up short.

By the end of Good Trouble, one increasingly feels the weight of Lewis carrying the hopes and dreams of a people — of a nation, really — on his shoulders for six decades. The last shot of the doc shows Lewis in medium close-up as he delivers a version of a speech we’ve heard him make many times before: “We will create the beloved community. We will get there. I still believe we shall overcome.”

Instead of inspiring hope, though, the words feel canned, as if the man saying them is someone far wearier than his exterior projects. Lewis’ overwhelming optimism is ever present in Good Trouble, and that’s a good thing. It’s one of the many reasons why he’s an American hero after all. Maybe Porter’s main achievement here, then, is that the film also highlights the human cost of being the hero who has dutifully stayed on message for decades. And you can’t help but wonder if shouldering that burden was too much to ask in the first place.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures (Available via Film Forum's Virtual Cinema)
Principal Cast: John Lewis, Michael Collins, Elijah Cummings, James Clyburn, Bernard LaFayette, Jr.
Production Companies: Magnolia Pictures, Participant, Cnn Films, Agc Studios, Trilogy Films, Color Farm Media, Time Studios, Just Films, Ford Foundation
Director: Dawn Porter
Producers: Dawn Porter, Laura Michalchyshyn, Alexandra Hannibal, Erika Alexander, Ben Arnon
Executive Producers: Amy Entelis, Courtney Sexton, Dori Begley, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Stuart Ford, Rachel Traub, Ian Orefice, Mike Beck
Cinematography: Tony Hardmon, Keith Walker, Stefan Wiesen
Editor:
Jessica Congdon
Original Music: Tamar-Kali

96 minutes