John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.
Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.
One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.
Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.
Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.