Civil rights leader and Georgia Congressman John Lewis has led an amazing life and continues, even following a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer, to fight the good fight in these fraught times. The documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, released by Magnolia Pictures, presents an impressive take on the firebrand whose lifelong fight for justice is as vital today as it ever has been.
Director Dawn Porter and producer Laura Michalchyshyn had been looking to follow up their successful collaboration on the four-part docuseries Bobby Kennedy for President when they crossed paths with Amy Entelis and Courtney Sexton, who had recently executive produced RBG, about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Entelis had also previously collaborated with Michalchyshyn for two CNN Original Series, Chicagoland and Death Row Stories.
Coming up with an approach was no easy feat: Lewis, from long before marching with Martin Luther King at Selma over half a century before to his vocal opposition to Trump administration policies, had not only been present for huge number of key historic changes in this country but had been a key force of many. Porter’s approach, mixing interviews and testimonials with archival material seemed the best way to offer the overview of such a storied life that she was hoping to present.
Porter decided to curate a variety of voices that showcased her subject in many different ways: “To young legislators,” she explains, “he demonstrates that you can live your principles and get things done, while still being true to yourself. To his seasoned colleagues, he’s a consistent and loyal friend. So, my goal was to include the kinds of voices that would speak to each of these different experiences.”
One of the powerful aspects of the documentary is the wealth of rare and never-before-seen archival material Porter and her team unearthed from a variety of sources. “Archivist Rich Remsberg and I had collaborated on the Bobby Kennedy series, so we knew that there was a lot of footage of young John Lewis out there,” the director recalls. “That gave us a bit of a head start on this film.
“We combed through all of the usual sources, and then Rich started searching secondary sources, where he discovered some marvelous photos we hadn’t seen before,” she says, noting that Lewis himself had never seen some of the imagery. “You might think he’d seen everything by now, but he hadn’t, and he really enjoyed that, which meant a lot to me.”
Risa Sarachan, for a feature article and interview with Porter, writes, “Most compelling is the exploration, complete with archival images, of Lewis’ childhood as the son of a sharecropper in Troy, Alabama. Always dressed up and carrying his bible, before he spoke at the March on Washington, Lewis practiced his fierce oratorical skills before an audience of the family’s chickens.
“He began his career by writing to Martin Luther King Jr. and asking to join the cause. Eventually, Lewis began working as a student activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, traveling through the Jim Crow south as a freedom rider. This backstory helps give perspective on how Lewis would go on to become the civil rights hero and champion who stood on that bridge in Selma during the peaceful march that became known as Bloody Sunday, when he was almost killed by white police officers.”
“Sometimes, you don’t want to meet people you really respect because it could ruin it for you,” Porter notes, adding that the reality can sometimes undermine the image. “He was the opposite. He was nicer, funnier. He’s a very calm person. And so it was really pleasant to be around him, and he’s still hopeful. There were times when I’d say, ‘This happened, and that happened.’ And he would just be encouraging and say I couldn’t give up. We’re watching the Voting Rights Act being dismantled, and he’s like, ‘You can’t give up.’ I’m trying to live up to his faith in humanity because he really does have a very strong faith in it.”
The amount of archival footage Porter and her team unearthed for Good Trouble, Steve Fennessy points out, was remarkable: “For instance, the clips of Lafayette and Lewis on the banks of the lake were from NBC, which, like other networks at the time, sent independent filmmakers to the South to document the nascent civil rights movement. And so, for example, we are able to see the training that protesters underwent to gird them for the verbal—and physical—abuse they would suffer as they sought to integrate the lunch counters of Nashville.”
Lewis is 80. Late last year, he announced he has stage-four pancreatic cancer. For any patient with such a diagnosis, the prognosis is grim. On Valentine’s Day, Porter visited Lewis at his home, and he greeted her as he always did: button-down shirt, pressed slacks. He offered her tea. In a few weeks would be the 55th anniversary of the Selma march that had left Lewis bleeding but also had led to the Voting Rights Act. Would the congressman be making the trip to Selma, sick as he was? “He was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go.’ And he did.”
Eric Kohn’s review praises the documentary for its straightforward presentation of the facts without subsuming the content in excessive style. It “doesn’t try any fancy trickery to energize that saga,” he writes, “instead deriving its appeal from the sheer resilience of the change agent at its center. As with 2018’s Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary RGB, Porter offers a closeup look at a historic figure somehow still in the game decades down the line, and seemingly too good for this world. ‘As long as I have breath in my body,’ Lewis says to the camera, ‘I’ll do what I can.’”
“Of course, Lewis knows he won’t be around forever, and Good Trouble chronicles the urgency that comes out of that realization,” Kohn continues. “Porter makes it clear that Lewis’ purpose is much grander than any single assault on democratic institutions. He’s a living testament to the value of staying in the battle as long as it rages on. Lewis was fighting for America’s future long before any recent conflicts, and the documentary makes a welcome case for keeping hope alive.” To read the full article, click here.
Porter tells Ernie Suggs at the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “I followed him for a year during this crazy Trump presidency. The idea is he is still here. Not a postage stamp. Not a person from history.”
Perhaps the most revealing moment in this film about the 80-year-old Lewis—a man who’s spent well over 60 years fighting his country’s most intractable problems and continues to do so despite fragile health—comes in the final seconds.
“After the credits roll, Lewis makes one final cameo, dancing to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy.’”
“I want people to know that there are and there always will be people who go into government for the right reasons,” Porter tells Suggs. “Sometimes, the word ‘hero’ applies. That is true in the case of John Lewis. Everything you know about him is deserved. He is kind, funny and most importantly, he is hopeful.”
While racing to follow Lewis as he dashed from meeting to meeting, Porter was surprised by the heartfelt reactions of citizens and constituents who caught sight of him. Time and time again, Americans from all walks of life would stop and greet the Congressman as though he were a dear friend, thanking him for his leadership and inspiration.
“When it first occurred, we thought it was kind of funny,” says Porter. “But we quickly realized it happens constantly. People feel compelled to tell him how meaningful his example has been for them. He’s kind of a living embodiment of the idea that our future will be better, and I think people need that right now.”
The film is available for online rental on July 3 across all the major platforms and is set to eventually run on CNN later this year.