FilmWeekend

A John Lewis Documentary Probes Tensions Between National and State Power

For any American even mildly ignorant of the rich, complex legacy of Civil Rights within our decidedly disunited country, Dawn Porter’s John Lewis: Good Trouble should be mandatory viewing.

John Lewis in John Lewis: Good Trouble, a Magnolia Pictures release (© Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos, photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

On Sunday, June 28, amid a surge of COVID-19 cases across the country and the scourge of rising political unrest, Mississippi became the last state in the union to remove the Confederate emblem from its flag. That the state is home to a greater percentage of African Americans than any other remains both a bitter irony and testament to an enduring tradition in the United States of willful erasure of Black lives — a travesty of representation that retiring a blue diagonal cross can only begin to rectify.

For documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter, the state’s power has long proven of keen, if subtle, interest. Spies of Mississippi, from 2014, exposed the insidious history of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, an espionage network of both Black and white agents undermining federal pressures to integrate the South. Two years later, her film Trapped investigated the civil rights violations of so-called “TRAP” laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) that have swept so many conservative regions, most intensely in Texas and Alabama. Her 2018 Netflix docuseries Bobby Kennedy for President addressed the federal government’s flagrant socioeconomic neglect of the rural south in the 1960s, such that “the most trusted white man in Black America” became visibly shaken during a visit to the Mississippi Delta.

Porter’s latest feature, John Lewis: Good Trouble, chronicles the trials and triumphs of the civil rights icon. Released nationally on July 3, a strategic sneak preview was staged in Tulsa in honor of Juneteenth, one day prior to Trump’s notoriously raucous, maskless rally. To premiere during a peaceful protest is perfectly in keeping with film’s title — “good trouble” is the Georgia congressman’s go-to phrase for the virtues of civil disobedience. “In 1955, the actions of Rosa Parks, the words and leadership of Dr. King, inspired me to get in trouble,” Lewis tells a crowd of Texans. “It was good trouble, necessary trouble. It’s time for people … here in Dallas, to get in trouble!”

John Lewis in John Lewis: Good Trouble, a Magnolia Pictures release (© Ben Arnon, photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Good Trouble most overtly stresses the movement’s ongoing struggle to end voter suppression — one all too relevant in a country that seven years ago reversed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, on the dubious grounds, as Justice Roberts put it, that “the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” Civil Rights footage from archivist Richard Remsberg (who also worked on Bobby Kennedy and Spies of Mississippi) lends context to Porter’s depiction of Lewis’s activist and political trajectory. “What I really wanted [Rembserg] to do was to find pieces that were not as well known,” Porter explained in an interview with film critic Jamie Broadnax. “We’re very familiar with some iconic moments … but not a lot of people remember that he spoke at the March on Washington. He and the other men and women of that time met for weeks and months, sometimes years, as they planned where they would target for protests.” As the octogenerian recounts the men and women who “stood in unmovable lines” to register in Alabama in 1963, it’s hard not to picture the endless queues weaving through Atlanta for the recent 2020 primaries, each voter spaced six feet apart, so many of them people of color.

Observing the groundswell of public protest in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and a multitude of other American cities, the summer of 2020 appears a time of earnest reckoning, the tipping point for Black Lives Matter and righteous outrage across the US. Georgia’s June primaries woefully demonstrated the extent to which Black voters don’t matter in so many states, precisely because Black ballots would matter. As Stacey Abrams puts it during a scene from her 2018 gubernatorial campaign (of which Lewis was a vocal proponent), “If they didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be trying to shut you up.”

Dawn Porter, director of John Lewis: Good Trouble, a Magnolia Pictures release (© Henny Garfunkel, photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Just as Lewis plays a key part in Porter’s Bobby Kennedy series — he was a volunteer for the New York Senator’s presidential campaign — national figureheads like Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder, and Cory Booker make cameos in Good Trouble, explaining the disastrous consequences of the 2013 Supreme Court voter rights decision. “What North Carolina did with surgical precision was disenfranchise African Americans,” explains Booker. “John Lewis beat back numerous attempts over his career of people altering voter rights that would affect not just African Americans, but low-income Americans and so many others.” As Representative (and Lewis acolyte) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez frames it, “So much of John Lewis’s activism was to highlight the inaction of the federal government” to address discrimination at the level of the state.

“My greatest fear is that I wake up, and our democracy is gone,” Lewis tells Porter, his invisible confidante behind the lens. Lewis speaks slowly, pensively, as though reading lines from a poem. At only five-foot-five, he parts the crowds in his signature pigeon-blue suit, his hands ready for a hearty shake, his arms eager to embrace supporters. He is gentle, deliberate, bracingly sincere. “In high school, he wore a tie, dressed up … and carried his Bible,” Lewis’s sisters, Rosa and Ethel, share, finishing the other’s sentence.

Protestors and police officers on Bloody Sunday, in John Lewis: Good Trouble, a Magnolia Pictures release (© Spider Martin, photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

As in her earlier films, Porter herself never appears, instead directing attention toward the relevant subject. Later in the film, she highlights the congressman’s jolly, avuncular side — whether boogying to Pharrell Williams in his office or visiting his family’s chicken farm in Troy, Alabama. “They’re beautiful hens,” he muses while scattering feed in his button-down shirt.

At the same time, the director takes care to complicate a man who could come across as an innocuous saint. Like Spies of Mississippi and Bobby Kennedy, Good Trouble doesn’t shy away from addressing the fissures within the Civil Rights movement and among the Black community — such as Lewis’s 1966 defeat to Stokely Carmichael to head the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) or his 1986 rivalry with former friend Julian Bond for the 5th District congressional seat. As we learn that Lewis nabbed the majority of the white votes and far fewer Black votes, the film opens up the question of what sorts of concessions are warranted to achieve public office.

While some may wish to see these issues explored in greater depth, Good Trouble is more invested in Lewis’s legacy as a means to inspire civic duty. “[T]here are forces today trying to take us back to another time and another dark period,” Lewis calmly tells the camera. “We’ve come so far and made so much progress, but as a nation and as a people, we’re not quite there yet. We have miles to go.”

John Lewis with fellow protestors at Edmund Pettus Bridge, in John Lewis: Good Trouble, a Magnolia Pictures release (© Alabama Department of Archies and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group, photo by Tom Lankford, Birmingham News, photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Despite his devastating diagnosis with stage IV pancreatic cancer in late 2019, Lewis remains committed to that journey. And if anyone can withstand such a disease with grace, it would have to be a man who has endured numerous attacks on his body in the name of non-violent protest. “When you lose your sense of fear, you’re free,” Lewis reflects in response to stills from his Freedom Rider days, a time in which his life was perpetually imperiled by the Klan. “You come to that point that if you don’t do everything you can to change things, it will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You got to give it all you have.”

As a trial attorney turned documentarian, Porter has consistently committed her efforts to reframing oversimplified narratives. “I think often Black people are portrayed as being brave, but there’s not as much attention paid to the strategy,” she told Broadnax. “And John Lewis is a political genius.” For the countless American students subjected to the sanitization of the history — and dangers — of nonviolent protest, Lewis’s story serves as an apt corrective. For any American even mildly ignorant of the rich, complex legacy of Civil Rights within our decidedly disunited country, John Lewis: Good Trouble should be mandatory viewing.

John Lewis: Good Trouble, directed by Dawn Porter, is available to stream nationwide.

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