Documentary Review: ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’

Review by James Lindorf

Director Dawn Porter (Trapped) profiles the life and career of John Lewis, famed civil rights activist, and Georgia Congressman in her latest film “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” John Robert Lewis was born in 1940 outside of Troy, Alabama, and celebrated his 80th birthday this past February. Using current interviews with Lewis, Porter explores his over 60 years of social activism and legislative action in the search for equal rights and justice. She followed him from picking cotton and preaching to chickens on his family’s farm in Troy, to his fateful meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957, to the historic swearing-in of the latest Congressional Black Caucus. John Lewis is still hard at work, but you can take a break to learn about him when “John Lewis: Good Trouble” comes to select theaters as well as Digital and On-Demand platforms July 3rd.

Porter used the classic cinéma verité approach to her film to avoid embellishing John’s life with camera or editing tricks. His life is exciting and inspirational enough to stand on its own. Sometimes this approach results in a flow that can feel a bit aimless, because it lacks the structure of a tightly edited film. However, this honest and raw take is what Lewis and the civil rights movement deserve. This intimate approach leaves you with a sense of respect for who John is, what he has done, and what he has survived; it also gives you a sense of friendship. You get to see John giving persuasive speeches throughout Georgia and the rest of the country stumping for fellow Democrats in tight races. Beyond that, we see John in his private life, an office too cluttered for his mother. This large birdcage is now home to chicken figurines and his quiet life at home since his wife’s death after 44 years of marriage.

Two stories repeatedly appear in John’s speeches because they show up multiple times in Good Trouble. First is the story of him and his siblings rounding up the family’s chickens from him to practice his preaching. The second is the story of being arrested at least 45 times while he was getting into good trouble, necessary trouble. His love for people, his passion for democracy and equal rights make John a powerful speaker and motivator. There were times I wanted to turn off the film, head outside, and get into some good trouble of my own.

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” may end with John still at work, but the film has an air of finality because it feels like something that would be made posthumously. This feeling leads to the film feeling incomplete. Lewis may be 80 and likely nearing the end of his life, but there is a lot of important work left to do, and John plans to be a part of it until his last breath. Whether he lives another two years or thirty, those years will be worth sharing, possibly in a sequel titled Necessary Trouble.

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