Reel Critic: ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’

By Nina Ng

COURTESY PHOTO

In one image from the historic 1965 Civil Rights march that took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the activist John Lewis kneels, pushed to the ground with his hand cradling the back of his head. A state trooper stands over his figure, raising a baton and ready to strike. Looking back at the fateful “Bloody Sunday” the protest turned into, no words could ever do justice to how hard leaders like Lewis have fought for the civil rights we have today. Five decades later, this summer brought forth the sad news of Lewis’ passing. However, Lewis remains with us, remembered as one of the nation’s most influential state representatives and activists who lived through and made history. Such is shown in Dawn Porter’s 2020 biographical documentary, “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”

Let’s begin with the name of the film. Lewis has shown us the virtue in pursuing everything you can, speaking up for any injustice you see. He says, “One day, I heard Rosa Parks — heard the words of Martin Luther King on the radio. And the words inspired me to get in trouble, and I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.” Silhouetted against a projection of scenes in history he himself faced, Lewis’ expression shifts with every moving image as we are transported back in time. His face is determined and optimistic, looking forward to building a better tomorrow.

Lewis grew up in Alabama in the ’50s, picking cotton in the hot sun but enamored with his schoolwork. The film transitions from slide to slide, showing us pictures of the expanses of cotton and interviews with citizens who grew up the same way and with Lewis’ siblings. It’s endearing to see the optimism and love of his family as they discuss his passion for oration. Lewis was determined since his youth, preaching to the chickens in his yard and reading every book he could find. 

One of my favorite scenes from the film was when filmmaker Porter follows Lewis around as he visits his sister’s house, talking about growing up in Troy, Ala. He sprays seed and cheeps at the chickens inside the low shed, smiling about his aspirations to preach as a boy. Here, we see Lewis in his own element, a younger version of the formidable political figure he has come to be known as. Lewis remains respectful of his southern roots, the memories of which push him forward.

As one would expect, the documentary isn’t the easiest to watch. As we follow Lewis’s career and civil rights battles, we see difficult interviews with political opponents, and even one of a waitress who refused him service back when Lewis was participating in sit-ins. 

Scenes like the sit-in bring us back to those themes of the “good trouble” that Lewis urges everyone to participate in. In a new century, Lewis stresses, “We have to get out and register, get out and vote like we’ve never before. The vote is precious.” Today, good trouble transforms into something else.

Porter has amassed an impressive collection of footage, documents and art to show pieces of Lewis’ history in an honest way. To have a director try to capture such a full life honestly — the difficulties, the long and winding road — is simultaneously harrowing and humbling to see. Porter doesn’t necessarily seek to idolize Lewis. The film instead humanizes him in a way that reminds us of his purpose. Spanning the years of his career, the film also showcases the evolution of protest culture, even as it stretches into today. As modern politicians seek to undo all the legislation pushed forward since the 60’s Civil Rights Movement, Lewis’ impact is not done yet.

As I watched “Good Trouble,” I could not help but feel trepidation about the future, but the documentary has also left me with a unifying sensibility. Porter’s work reminded me that it is not the time to despair, even as so much is on the line. In the words of Lewis, “We cannot give up; we cannot give in. We must keep to faith; we must keep our eyes on the prize.”