Director Dawn Porter’s documentary film about John Robert Lewis was released just weeks before the seventeen-term Congressman died of pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2020. The serendipitous release of the film adds to the interest in viewing this biographical documentary, which commemorates the legislator known as “the conscience of the Congress.” Porter uses traditional techniques to tell Lewis’s life story, a story so remarkable that innovative filming techniques were not needed to embellish reality.
We start with a youngster growing up on a farm in rural Alabama, where Lewis’s chore was to care for the chickens. An adult Lewis loved to tell the story of wanting, at an early age, to be a preacher. He would practice preaching to the chickens who would follow him around attentively but failed to say “Amen.” In 1940s Alabama, few Black people voted out of fear of harassment at the polls. An alert youngster, Lewis was aware at an early age of the inequities that pervaded the lives of Blacks in the South—the segregated bathrooms, the inability to eat at lunch counters, the deference to Whites. A good student, Lewis was eager to check out library books, but the librarian told him that “Negroes could not use the library.”
Like the parents of most Black children living in the segregated South, Lewis’s parents warned him that he had to accept the flawed world he lived in and should not make trouble. But he grew up on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement and, as a college student, met Martin Luther King Jr. and trained in the techniques of non-violent protest. He had written a letter to King asking if he could meet him and signed it as a boy from Troy. King was immediately impressed by the young man and the two were seen together at many peaceful protests, the protests being the “good trouble” that Lewis realized had to happen if Blacks were to gain their civil rights. The “good trouble” led to many arrests and Lewis, in his later years, would brag about having been arrested and jailed 40 times.
Porter uses an abundance of archival footage in her film. We see Lewis participating in the 1963 March on Washington where he spoke with such intensity that King had to caution him to soften his remarks. Two years later, Lewis was at King’s side as they walked from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, crossing the Pettus Bridge, where Lewis was beaten to unconsciousness. Porter also uses filmed interviews with political luminaries—Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Cory Booker—who all speak of Lewis’s place in the history of the Civil Rights movement in America.
Fellow U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, who passed away just months before the release of this documentary, explains Lewis’s effective leadership as the result of his frontline experiences marching for justice. Cummings also mischievously describes being mistaken for Lewis in airports and other public spaces.
We watch Lewis in formal and informal settings, addressing large crowds as well as chatting with parishioners outside church on Sundays. We see him at his tastefully decorated home in Atlanta with his wife, a former librarian from Los Angeles and a committed Civil Rights advocate, who had already passed away before this film was made.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” is available through Video on Demand.
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