“When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, say something, do something. Get into trouble, good trouble - necessary trouble.”
- John Lewis
John Lewis: Good Trouble chronicles the life and career of the late John Lewis - the iconic civil rights activist and Democratic Representative from Georgia. Dawn Porter’s timely and powerful film mixes stunning archive footage and fascinating interviews to explore the legacy of a man who spent over 60 years getting into good trouble over civil rights, voting rights, gun control, health-care reform and immigration.
The use of archive material puts John Lewis’ story into historical context. The footage - some of it never seen before - is fascinating and, at times, extremely disturbing. In a move of filmmaking genius, we watch Lewis watch these scenes. The experience is both moving and compelling.
“I was observing John Lewis watching footage of himself at the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, and I heard him remark that it felt like he was watching someone else’s life unfold,” Porter explains. “I found myself struck by that comment, and I suddenly realised that it might be interesting to see him respond directly to the archival footage we’d discovered.”
Porter and her team rented the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where they built three large screens and installed six cameras that surrounded Lewis during his on-camera interview. “The idea was to create an immersive atmosphere where he could respond to the images he was seeing,” Porter adds. “I think it helped him to relive some of those stories in new ways. It was like he was there again.”
In John Lewis: Good Trouble, Lewis is encouraged to narrate his own life. The story he tells is incredible. Lewis was one of the original 1960 “Freedom Riders” who protested against interstate transportation segregation. He was also an organiser of 1964’s “Freedom Summer” to register African American voters across the South.
Meanwhile, as the young chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was one of the ‘Big Six’ Civil Rights leaders of the time. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Lewis is also remembered, of course, for his leadership and bravery on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on 7 March, 1965. Along with 600 other nonviolent marchers, Lewis was met by Alabama state troopers who ordered the protestors to disperse.
The troopers fired tear gas at the group and mounted police beat the peaceful activists with nightsticks. A blow to the head fractured Lewis’ skull. He thought he was going to die that day, but he managed to escape.
In his appearance on national television that same afternoon, Lewis called for President Lyndon Johnson to intervene on behalf of voting rights.
This documentary could easily have drowned under the weight of archive footage. However, Porter was also determined to combine Lewis’ past with his (extremely active) present - and put his legacy in context.
The film features a series of fascinating interviews with key people in Lewis’ personal and political life. Conversations with Lewis’ family reveal intimate (and often funny) stories about his past and comments from Lewis' chief of staff, Michael Collins, offer warm insights about the man behind the legend.
Meanwhile, we hear testimonials from the likes of Hilary and Bill Clinton, Stacey Abrams, Nancy Pelosi, James Clyburn and the late Elijah Cummings (to whom the film is dedicated).
We also hear from Congressional newcomers like Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar. Ocasio-Cortez explains how Lewis inspired her - stating that, without him, she wouldn’t be in Congress today.
“To young legislators, he demonstrates that you can live your principles and get things done, while still being true to yourself,” says Porter. “To his seasoned colleagues, he’s a consistent and loyal friend. So, my goal was to include the kinds of voices that would speak to each of these different experiences.”
In addition to his to-camera interview, the documentary follows John Lewis as he hurries from meeting to meeting. However, as busy as he is, Lewis always makes time for those who want to say hello and tell him what his work has meant to them. It is a truly heartwarming sight.
“When it first occurred, we thought it was kind of funny,” recalls Porter. “But we quickly realised it happens constantly. People feel compelled to tell him how meaningful his example has been for them... I never saw him turn somebody away who wanted a picture or a hug.”
While John Lewis: Good Trouble is largely a celebration of Lewis’ life, it does not shy away from controversy. “No one is perfect, and politics is messy,” Porter acknowledges. “I just felt that it was necessary to document those things as accurately as possible, especially his Congressional primary campaign against fellow Democrat Julian Bond in 1986. I mean, that’s literally how he got elected to Congress, so we couldn’t ignore that piece of history.”
The film shows how Lewis and Bond - both iconic figures of the Civil Rights Movement - fought a contentious and bitter contest to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional district that included accusations of drug use made against Bond by Lewis.
“When we found this great archive of material all about that election, I knew we had to include it somehow,” Porter says. “It just felt like an important part of his story. Lewis and Bond did eventually come together again after their falling-out. They were finally able to move past it, which wasn’t easy.”
Meanwhile, the documentary emphasises Lewis' steadfast belief in the importance of democracy. He has worked tirelessly to protect voting rights. “Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the comment that John Lewis can’t be separated from the Voting Rights Act, and she’s absolutely right,” comments Porter.
“Many of his early activities were centered on gaining access to the vote, so we really wanted to highlight what that battle has been like for both him and the country. And considering how much voter suppression we’ve seen recently, that subject speaks volumes right now.”
As a result of the forthcoming US elections and the building momentum of the black lives matter movement, John Lewis: Good Trouble feels incredibly timely. However, the good trouble the Lewis advocates is also, of course, timeless.
“I really hope viewers take John Lewis’ message to heart and don’t give up, because we can’t afford to be cynical right now,” says Porter.
*** Stay to the end credits for a little bit of much needed happiness! ***