In ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble,’ the Georgia congressman reminds us there are still many rivers to cross
Lewis’ journey from cotton sharecropper to Congress is retold in a new documentary
This year marked the 55th anniversary of the most famous moment of Georgia congressman John Lewis’ life: Bloody Sunday.
Lewis, 80, is the last of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, best known as the man in a trench coat and backpack who was on the front lines of the March 7, 1965, march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, that ended with police violence at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis was beaten about the head so bad that he had to be hospitalized.
“I thought I was going to die on that bridge,” he recalled in John Lewis: Good Trouble, a new documentary from Dawn Porter, available to stream and on video on demand on Friday.
His story, and the story of Bloody Sunday, was the subject of director Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated 2015 film Selma. (Actor Stephan James played Lewis.) Yet there are still revelations to be mined from Lewis’ story and his role in American history.
After watching Good Trouble, I needed to revisit this paragraph from a June 26 barn burner of an op-ed by poet Caroline Randall Williams in The New York Times. In it, Williams, who is Black, came forward as a daughter of the Confederacy and a living Confederate monument who owes her existence to generations of interracial rape.
You cannot dismiss me as someone who doesn’t understand. You cannot say it wasn’t my family members who fought and died. My blackness does not put me on the other side of anything. It puts me squarely at the heart of the debate. I don’t just come from the South. I come from Confederates. I’ve got rebel-gray blue blood coursing my veins. My great-grandfather Will was raised with the knowledge that Edmund Pettus was his father. Pettus, the storied Confederate general, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma’s Bloody Sunday Bridge is named. So I am not an outsider who makes these demands. I am a great-great-granddaughter.
Ever since the showdown at the bridge that bears the name of Williams’ great-great-grandfather, Lewis has been offering his testimony. One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest acolytes (he said King always referred to him as “the boy from Troy”), Lewis is a living monument to the fight for voting rights, one he continues to wage to this day. His fight has taken on a new urgency in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965 because of the work of Lewis and his peers.
Lewis has shared his story in two books (Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement and Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America) and a National Book Award-winning comic book series called March. He’s sat for hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews. And yet Porter, who followed the sprightly elder statesman while he barnstormed for candidates in the 2018 midterms, was still able to find something new: archived footage and photos, including from a lunch counter sit-in Lewis participated in at a segregated restaurant called McClellan’s in Nashville, Tennessee. Porter constructs the shot so that viewers can watch Lewis as he watches the footage. She filmed her interviews with Lewis at Washington’s Arena Stage, using three large screens to project archival footage and six cameras to record the congressman as he watched it.
Porter is an accomplished documentary filmmaker whose 2016 work Trapped illustrated the consequences TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws had in making abortion nearly impossible to access in the states that adopted them. Though Porter includes background information about Lewis’ upbringing as the son of cotton sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, the bulk of the film focuses on his work as an elected official who never seems to stop moving, much less agitating for voting rights.
“As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can,” he said.
In December 2019, Lewis announced that he was undergoing treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Good Trouble identifies those who will carry on with Lewis’ work once he’s taken his final breath, anointing relative youngsters in Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Cory Booker as folks who have inherited Lewis’ impatience with injustice, and his urgency in pushing for change.
“When you lose your sense of fear, you’re free,” Lewis declared with commonsense clarity. What remains striking about Lewis, a man who was beaten by police in Selma, attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and arrested at least 40 times for protesting, is his enduring commitment to fighting, however he can, for democracy, all while maintaining a jubilant sense of purpose and good humor. Remember when video of him dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy” went viral? That’s in there too, along with not one, but two recountings of Lewis’ second-most famous story. When he was growing up, Lewis wanted to be a minister, and he practiced by preaching to his family’s chickens. There’s a priceless moment when Lewis is speaking to an assembly of current and former staffers, and Porter snags a shot of one staffer mouthing along the words to the chicken story as Lewis tells it yet again.
Though Porter filmed Good Trouble before Lewis was diagnosed with cancer, Lewis still comes across as a man who is well aware of his own mortality, of the stakes of our current era and of the fight that must continue after he is gone. The film opens with the congressman staring into the camera and speaking directly to viewers as he puts the full weight of his experience and authority behind his words.
“I feel lucky and blessed that I’m serving in the Congress, but there are forces today trying to take us back to another time and another dark period,” Lewis said. “We’ve come so far. We’ve made so much progress. But as a nation and a people, we’re not quite there yet. We have miles to go.”