John Lewis doc­u­men­tary hints at how we got here


Get­ting into “good trou­ble” is a guid­ing prin­ci­ple for John Lewis. It’s not only OK, but it’s nec­es­sary to en­act and in­spire mean­ing­ful change. And it’s not just rhetoric, ei­ther. The 80-year-old con­gress­man has the re­ceipts to prove it. He has been ar­rested 45 times, five of which hap­pened while he was a sit­ting rep­re­sen­ta­tive. In the new doc­u­men­tary “John Lewis: Good Trou­ble,” he couldn’t be prouder of that fact be­cause it has all been in ser­vice of his life­long fight for civil rights. He even pre­dicts that he’ll add to that tally.

It’s a prin­ci­ple that the coun­try seems to have taken to heart in the past month in the after­math of Ge­orge Floyd’s death. Peo­ple have taken to the streets and to Twitter to call at­ten­tion to in­jus­tices. They have pub­licly called out em­ploy­ers for con­scious and un­con­scious bias. And not only are they be­ing heard, but their con­cerns are be­ing taken seriously and re­sult­ing in swift and un­prece­dented change.

Who bet­ter to check in with than Lewis as the coun­try un­der­goes this seis­mic shift? But, of course, “John Lewis: Good Trou­ble” was filmed be­fore the past month. And thus, through no fault of its own, this his­toric mo­ment makes Dawn Porter’s film feel both im­mensely timely and like a time cap­sule. At the very least, it prob­a­bly could have used and ben­e­fited from a post­script about what is hap­pen­ing right now.

Porter uses a mass of in­cred­i­ble archival footage to flesh out the life of this “boy from Troy” (which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called him), who “read ev­ery­thing” grow­ing up, be­came a Free­dom Rider, spoke at the March on Wash­ing­ton, crossed the Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge (where his skull was frac­tured) and went on to get elected to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, where he is cur­rently serv­ing his 17th term.

The film, which is largely cel­e­bra­tory, re­lies heav­ily on talk­ing-head in­ter­views from his fam­ily, the late Elijah Cum­mings (to whom the film is ded­i­cated), Hil­lary Clin­ton and younger rep­re­sen­ta­tives such as Ayanna Press­ley, Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Il­han Omar, who try to con­tex­tu­al­ize his im­por­tance.

But it stays oddly sur­face level, de­spite hav­ing what looks like a lot of ac­cess to him and his fam­ily as he goes about his busi­ness around D.C., at­tend­ing speak­ing en­gage­ments. It opens with Lewis watch­ing protest footage from the 1960s, which is it­self a pow­er­ful im­age but doesn’t lead to any­thing else: re­flec­tion, in­tro­spec­tion or even anec­dotes.

The fo­cus re­turns of­ten to the 1965 Vot­ing Rights Act, which was weak­ened by the 2013 Supreme Court de­ci­sion Shelby County v. Holder. This re­mains a key topic go­ing into the 2020 elec­tion and clearly seemed like the most im­por­tant thing to fo­cus on in de­pict­ing the Lewis of now, be­fore the pan­demic and the protests.

Still, it is some­what telling that one of the most mem­o­rable parts of the doc­u­men­tary comes not from Lewis but from Cum­mings, who said he was of­ten mis­taken for his peer.

“I have got­ten a lot of pic­tures with peo­ple think­ing I’m John Lewis,” Cum­mings said. He never wanted to embarrass any­one by cor­rect­ing them, he ex­plained.

Per­haps the most strik­ing as­pect of the film is how prophetic it is. Al­though it doesn’t of­fer any re­flec­tion on the cur­rent mo­ment, it also won’t come as a sur­prise how we got here.

Ge­or­gia politi­cian Stacey Abrams says that Lewis “re­minds us that our past is not past.”

Lewis’ great­est fear, he says, is that he will wake up and democ­racy will be gone. But, re­as­sur­ingly, he’s not done yet. “As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can,” he says.


Dur­ing a 2016 event in Nashville, Tenn., Rep. John Lewis looks at images from one of his ar­rests more than 50 years ear­lier.

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