John Lewis and his Good Trouble

B+ political documentary
Directed by Dawn Porter

Update: I’ve added more information at the bottom of the article.

I’m writing my review of the biographical documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, in early June. The murder of George Floyd and the resulting riots are pushing COVID-19 off the front page. I don’t know what America will be like when the film opens in early July. But in the moment, the film I just watched seems very much like what’s going on in the streets.

I generally am wary of biographical documentaries that all but worship the subject. But when the subject is John Lewis, the former civil rights hero turned senior congressman, worship comes easy. He claims that he was arrested 40 times during the civil rights era, and five times more since he’s been in Congress.

Porter starts the film with Lewis sitting in a chair, in the middle of what appears to be an empty room, as he watches clips of riots that happened more than 50 years ago. White bigots are bashing peaceful protesters. Non-violent civil disobedience was the phrase of the day. Many of the protesters were beat up. Some were killed. But they didn’t physically fight back.

With Lewis narrating, we learn about the lunch counter protests, the Freedom Riders, the March on Washington, the church bombing in Birmingham, and so on. The Good Trouble in the title comes from Lewis’ own philosophy that you should get into trouble for good causes.

Lewis tells us that he quit the movement when it turned away from segregation and to threats of violence. The congressman wants everyone to know that he’s still non-violent and welcomes white supporters.

But he still works for justice. There’s a montage of bills he’s signed over his long years in Congress. He talks about the continuing fight to overcome attempts to keep black and poor people voting.

The documentary doesn’t follow Lewis’ life chronologically. It hops from recent speeches, his youth marching with Martin Luther King, and his childhood. We see him doing the world of a congressman – both signing bills and attending rallies to help other progressive politicians. When he goes to an airport, people keep running up to shake his hand, hug him, and tell them how important he’s been in their lives. But you should remember that a camera crew in an airport is almost certain to bring out a crowd.

Porter occasionally reminds us that he’s just a regular guy. His family raised hens when he was young, and he now has a collection of toy chickens. He admits in a church meeting that he can’t sing. But he happily dances in front of someone’s phone.

The film covers his marriage in one quick sequence. They meet. They marry. They have a child. Sadly, she dies. We don’t know when it happened, or how it affected his career. We really know nothing about her.

The documentary shows a Lewis without blemishes. I’ve been a fan of his for I don’t remember how long, but Porter makes him too good to be true.

The film will be available Friday, July 3, through the BAMPFA, the Rafael. and the Roxie.