It is intensely comforting to hear U.S. Rep. John Lewis say, “We will redeem the soul of America – we shall overcome.” It’s the note on which director Dawn Porter leaves us at the end of her affectionate documentary portrait of Lewis, “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” Lewis is indeed the good kind of trouble, and he’s a good time, too, as evidenced by the friendly greetings he has for anyone who stops to thank him for his work, in airports and on the campaign trail, and in the viral video of the 80-year-old congressman and civil rights movement icon dancing to “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.
Lewis is an icon, his youthful mugshot an indelible image (and the poster for the film), as well as the photographs of him with his tan overcoat buttoned up, backpack slung on his back, making the march from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
But unlike King, Malcolm X and other civil rights icons assassinated for their leadership, Lewis isn’t frozen in time, rendered into a symbol. He’s a living, legislating link to our recent history and a reminder that the battles fought for desegregation and voting rights weren’t all that long ago. He’s also a living reminder that the fight for the landmark legislation that is the Voting Rights Act is a constant one, and one of the most important fights of this era.
Porter’s film follows Lewis throughout the midterm elections of 2018, as the Georgia congressman stumps for Stacey Abrams, Beto O’Rourke and Colin Allred. It proves to be a stirring backdrop for the discussion of voting rights, especially in Abrams’ campaign, where Brian Kemp ended up winning the Georgia gubernatorial race through what seemed to be clear voter suppression tactics. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act with the Shelby decision, allowing states to enact what some would call Reconstruction era voting restrictions.
For Lewis, the fight for voting rights has marked his life, his career and his history. As he says, “A vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool in a Democratic society.” It’s an issue that remains crucially urgent in this election year, when voting rights have already been infringed upon during the primaries, while navigating an unprecedented pandemic. Archival footage shows conservative activist Paul Weyrich delivering a speech saying, “I don’t want everybody to vote,” which is disturbingly close to the messages coming down from current right-wing politicians.
“Good Trouble” is a lovely tribute to Lewis’ life, with so many moments from his story that feel urgent and relevant in this moment, from his civil rights organizing and activism, which was carefully planned, executed and sustained over years: a marathon, not a sprint. As freshman Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib express, Lewis, as well as the other organizers of the civil rights movement, provided a blueprint for how to do this work, and, in Lewis’ case especially, how to sustain it.
Porter’s film is a warm biography and depiction of Lewis’ life, but there are moments where one wishes it had a bit more bite. She favors heartwarming moments like the “Happy” viral dance, friendly interactions and loving testimonials from his friends and colleagues, while threading his background, seen mostly in archival footage throughout. There’s an interesting choice to show Lewis watching the footage of his past, but it never really achieves anything particularly profound.
However, Lewis is such a towering figure in American history, and American politics, that any tribute to him is a worthy one. We all have so much to thank him for.
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