JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE movie poster | ©2020 Magnolia Pictures

JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE movie poster | ©2020 Magnolia Pictures

Stars: John Lewis
Director: Dawn Porter
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: July 3, 2020

JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE is, as its title suggests, a biographical documentary about the Democratic Georgia congressman and civil rights activist who has served in the U.S. House since 1987. Director/producer Dawn Porter and her subject both exude cautious optimism in the face of current events.

“Good trouble” is what Lewis urges people to get into, which he also refers to “necessary trouble.” This means standing up for one’s principles and being willing to face sometimes monumental consequences. Lewis has survived segregation, over forty arrests during his organizing days in the ‘60s, and, he adds, five more arrests since he’s been in Congress. But we see and hear Lewis’s hero, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others who were beaten and murdered by whites, to say nothing of being insulted and excluded.

Watching JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE, the expression “the more things change, the more they stay the same” comes to mind. Porter has a wealth of archival footage from the ‘60s, with Lewis organizing and participating in protest marches, aimed at bettering civil rights for black people. Much of Lewis’s focus has been on voting rights. It’s disheartening to see that the need for people marching in the streets is still the case in the present. Part of the point of the film seems to be demonstrating that persistence eventually pays off, even when “eventually” takes a long time.

Much of JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE is an admiring history lesson. There are amusing bits, such as Lewis reminiscing about his youthful desire to be a preacher that had him addressing an actual flock – of chickens. (We even see a painting of him and the birds.) There are also plenty of tributes from present and past politicians, who speak of how Lewis inspired them, and what he’s accomplished. We also see Lewis stumping hard to get fellow Democrats, black and white, elected. It’s heartening (assuming one likes seeing crowds brought together and cheering), and educational, especially for viewers who may not know details or how things looked back in the day.

However, the last third of JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE is where we get a lot of the most intriguing material. While Lewis created controversy in his time, the intended audience of the film is likely to agree with his goals and most of his methods, including a sincere commitment to non-violence. But then we get clips of Malcolm X talking about the basic right to self-defense and Stokely Carmichael expressing his belief in the need for power more than racial cooperation, so we’re especially keen to hear Lewis’s response.

Even more surprising is the clash between Lewis and his old friend Julian Bond when both are running for the same office, and what Lewis does to tilt more conservative voters in his favor. JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE might have benefited from more of this kind of ambiguity, but the thrust is about what Lewis has achieved, and “good” is in the title, after all.

The last portion of the movie gets around to the United States post-2016 and some dismaying reversals. Still, Lewis counsels against becoming despondent. As bad as things seem now, they used to be worse, and Lewis is a big part of what made them better. Seeing what he’s done, and the people he’s moved, and the fact that he’s not giving up, it is in fact cause for hope.

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