JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE (2020) – Documentary on Civil Rights Icon and U.S. Congressman Only Scratches The Surface of his Accomplishments

john lewis good trouble

When the documentary JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE (2020) was released on July 3, I immediately put in on my list of movies to see and review.

Now, as much as I enjoy documentaries, I tend to put them on the back burner as I wade through horror films, action movies, thrillers, and even comedies before I finally get to the nonfiction movie fare. But when Lewis passed away on July 17, there was no more waiting.

JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE is the story of Civil Rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis. His is an important story to tell, especially here in 2020 when race relations are taking a hit and we seem to be moving backwards, thanks largely to a Trump administration which seems to relish in the type of aggressive and hatefult rhetoric that emboldens folks with racist views—aka, racists— to say and worse yet do things which do not support the notion that all people are created equal, regardless of the color of their skin. It’s a story that is sadder today, since Lewis has passed away, and he is no longer with us to lend his voice and actions to the cause of ending racism.

Directed by Dawn Porter, who also directed the documentary TRAPPED (2016), about the fight for women’s abortion rights in the U.S., JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE does an adequate and albeit somewhat unremarkable job of telling this story. Its strength is interviews with Lewis in the here and now, as we listen to his wisdom looking back over the years. But its weakness is that it is seriously lacking in depth. It only scratches the surface of the many stories from Lewis’ life, which is too bad because most of these stories are in need of deep research and in depth reporting, two things which this film do not provide.

As I said, the best part of the movie is when Lewis is speaking in the here and now. The trouble is he doesn’t speak at length very often, as the camera cuts away to something else all too often and all too quickly. There were times when I wished the camera would have remained on him and allowed him to reminisce and speak of his ideas and philosophy on things at much greater length. What better way to learn about an historic icon than from his own words? But the film doesn’t go this route.

Instead, it covers a lot of ground, mostly superficially. All this being said, I still enjoyed JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE, as it had a lot to say. I just wished it had dug deeper into its subject.

The title comes from Lewis’ story of how when he was a child his mom told him to stay out of trouble, but he found that wasn’t his way, that things in the world called to  him to become involved, to get into trouble, or good trouble, as he termed it, for the good of humankind.

Lewis was present at the march in Selma and was beaten severely there. He spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, the same day as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech.” Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders.

The film covers these events with archival footage and interviews with family, friends, and Lewis himself. But again, what’s missing is depth. Few historians weigh in, and the archival footage is minimal.

A microcosm of this documentary is the scene where Lewis is watching archival footage, and he says that this is the first time he is actually watching some of this footage. And this is how the film plays out. It’s almost more of tribute for John Lewis than about him.

It’s all very light and enjoyable, as a bunch of family and friends have all gotten together to say nice things about their valued friend and brother, John Lewis. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this, but I also wanted more. There’s so much more to learn about Lewis that is not touched upon in this film.

But there are plenty of enjoyable anecdotes, such as Lewis’ story on how he would preach to his chickens as a child, and to further show how special this memory was to Lewis, there’s a scene later where he shows off his collection of toy chickens housed in a model doll house which he converted into a model chicken house!

There’s the story of how Martin Luther King Jr. always affectionately referred to Lewis as “the boy from Troy.” And the footage of Elijah Cummings, who also just passed away in 2019, joking about how he was constantly mistaken for Lewis, especially during photo ops with adoring fans of the civil rights icon.

The film also covers Lewis’ tireless work on the Voting Rights Act over the years, which suffered a major setback in 2013 due to an ill-conceived Supreme Court ruling, which led to some pretty unsavory voting practices in several states in recent years, specifically Georgia in 2018 which handed the victory to Republican Brian Kemp over Democrat Stacey Abrams. Stories like this serve as a reminder that nefarious forces are at work in politics, and it takes relentless and tiring work of people who care to make sure that this doesn’t happen.

The world just lost one of these people who care on July 17, 2020, John Lewis.

You can learn a little bit about John Lewis by watching JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE. The documentary serves as a nice introduction to his life and achievements. But if you want to learn more, you’re going to have to do your homework and engage in some reading and research.

But that’s okay. John Lewis is worth the time and effort. Especially in the here and now when his voice is needed more than ever.

A voice that reminds us that when we see things that are not right that we have a moral obligation to speak up and do something about it.

An obligation to get into trouble.

Good trouble.


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