With an overdue reckoning on racism happening nationwide thanks to the renewed #BlackLivesMatter movement, it’s hard to imagine someone whose legacy would warrant a more urgent cinematic tribute than John Lewis, a true American civil rights icon. Currently serving his 17th term as a member of Congress, the 80-year-old U.S. Representative has always been at the forefront in the struggle for racial justice, from being one of the original 1960 “Freedom Riders” who protested against transportation segregation, to fighting against the suppression of black voters since the early ’60s. So the timing couldn’t be any more ideal for Dawn Porter’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a detailed yet paint-by-numbers study of the living legend who believes in the necessity of making good trouble as an instigator of societal change.
In a way, America has galvanized behind Lewis’ viewpoint in the last few weeks, taking it to heart and to the streets by protesting and demanding justice in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. This is partly why it feels slightly odd to watch a timely political documentary that lacks any reference to these current events. The reasons are surely more than understandable: Releasing on VOD July 3 after its Tribeca Film Festival was canceled due to the Covid-19 health crisis, “Good Trouble” was made during and for a different reality. In that regard, “Good Trouble” feels a tad unfinished in its formation, missing a historic postscript in the state of affairs it depicts.
Also missing in the film, though this time intentionally, is Donald Trump — while his incompetence and hateful footprints can be felt in almost every present-day fight for justice that Lewis is still fearlessly taking on with dignity, you will be hard-pressed to hear more than a pair of mentions of the President throughout the film. And what a relief that is. Bearing in mind the world that Porter’s documentary was meant for — a pandemic-free America on the verge of the 2020 presidential election — the filmmaker’s smart decision to ignore the perennially attention-seeking president pays off in a substantial way, allowing both the director and the viewer to focus on the issues that matter to Lewis and the country the most as we prepare to choose our next leader.
“We have come so far. But as a people and as a nation we are not there yet. We have miles to go,” Lewis is heard saying at the start of the film. In “Good Trouble,” Porter’s priority remains bringing these words home. Through archival footage and an array of talking-head interviews, she aims to document the racial equality-focused advancements made in the last several decades, represent Lewis’ venerable presence through it all and highlight areas where the needle sadly hasn’t moved much.
While she falls short of the kind of emotional confidence her previous, abortion-rights-focused documentary “Trapped” harnesses — and the discipline of Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG,” a comparable political portrait — Porter still proves to be mostly successful in delivering upon her narrative goals. Throughout, she features inspiring soundbites from high-profile sources, including late civil rights advocate Elijah Cummings (the film is dedicated to his memory), Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Cory Booker and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stirringly says she wouldn’t be where she is today if Lewis didn’t do the work that he did as a young man.
To connect the dots between these present-day interviews with the studious archival footage, Porter often cuts to an industrial-looking dark room where Lewis is seated, watching his life’s work flash before his eyes on giant screens. In one especially moving moment, Lewis reflectively admits to never having seen some of the footage Porter had unearthed for the film.
This inventive framing mostly works to the film’s favor, providing the viewer a roadmap as it toggles between eras and a vast number of historically momentous events, including Lewis’ iconic presence alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., when Lewis was the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. Porter also bakes in various endearing scenes dedicated to Lewis’ everyday charms and qualities, chief of them being a sequence scored to Pharrell’s “Happy” that celebrates him as a man who loves to dance.
Unfortunately, the editing proves to be less organized elsewhere. While a more than necessary piece of John Lewis’ life story as a politician, his unpleasant and controversial 1986 competition with fellow civil rights activist Julian Bond to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional district feels like a stray note in the film that comes out of nowhere.
Still, Porter manages to sketch a complete picture of the Alabama-born Lewis as a principled man, activist and politician who continues to pull his weight on numerous contemporary concerns such as gun violence, fair housing and environmental protection. As Hillary Clinton aptly reminds the audience, Lewis’ voice is needed as much now as when he was a young man. Since his is the kind of guidance and bravery we as a nation urgently crave, you can hardly go wrong with watching “John Lewis: Good Trouble” these days to remember what true leadership looks like.