John Lewis: Good Trouble takes its name from the legendary civil rights warrior/Congressman. His motto, repeated often in the film, is to make “good trouble, necessary trouble.” In other words, stand up for what's right, even and especially if it makes the establishment nervous. Could there be a more potent message for our current time? What's most admirable about the documentary is that it doesn't simply paint Lewis as a hero in the fight against racial injustice; that would have led to a flat, if informative experience. Instead, it delivers something much more vibrant – a portrait of a man who, by his own admission, lost his sense of fear, allowing him to fight ceaselessly for something he has always believed in.
Directed by Dawn Porter, the movie takes a strong “then and now” approach. Lewis's history marching with Martin Luther King and efforts to get the Voter Rights Act passed are a prime focus. This is achieved with the help of stunning archival footage, some of which not even Lewis himself had seen before. The scope of what he and his colleagues did really comes across. Having encountered violence or hostility from police and angry white racists, Lewis learned to stop being afraid of those things. He grew to understand that they were a sign of moral weakness, one that could be toppled if he just kept pushing. And so push, he did.
The “now” scenes suggest that, after several decades, Lewis still has to fight for voting rights, thanks to ongoing attempts by the GOP to suppress voting among minorities. Recent years have seen the use of multiple tactics, from gerrymandering so that people of color are put in districts that lack influence on the outcomes of elections, to reducing the number of polling stations in non-white areas. Lewis can't help but see this as a frightening regression of the very right he nobly fought for. Nevertheless, with one victory under his belt, he soldiers on, offering an encouraging “we will not go down” message to his supporters.
Some of the most affecting scenes in John Lewis: Good Trouble show him interacting with constituents. Witnessing the response he gets, particularly from the Black community, does a lot to highlight the enormous significance of his accomplishments. Many politically-themed documentaries tell us what the person at the center did, but don't show the reaction of those who benefited. In this instance, we can see the gratitude and respect Lewis has earned through his life's work. That respect is returned. Lewis always seems to have a moment to stop and talk with his admirers. His assistant, at one point, jokes that it takes forever to walk through an airport since everyone wants to talk to his boss, and his boss wants to talk to everyone.
By centering on John Lewis as a man who just happens to be a civil rights icon – instead of merely focusing on him as that icon – Good Trouble sends the message its subject would doubtlessly want conveyed: that one need not be a superhero to enact change, one just needs to be committed to a cause. There is nothing inherently different about Lewis. He is an ordinary man who did extraordinary things because he wanted to see change badly enough. Every one of us has the power to do the same.
John Lewis: Good Trouble is a documentary seemingly custom-made for our time. Voter suppression continues. Examples of racial profiling and police brutality are making the news. People are fed up. A better tomorrow is possible by following Lewis's lead, discarding fear, and vowing to never give up. There may not be a more inspiring non-fiction film this year.
out of four
John Lewis: Good Trouble is rated PG for thematic material including some racial epithets/violence, and for smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.