“I feel lucky and blessed that I’m serving in the Congress. But there is a force that is trying to take us back to another time and another dark period,” warned Congressman John Lewis. And he’d know.
Since age 17, this brave crusader has been at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Now at age 80, he’s an elder statesman. Following his path lets audiences retrace the steps of an activism that has led to social change, even in the midst of great oppression. For that alone, former trial lawyer turned documentarian Dawn Porter’s (Trapped, Gideon’s Army) homage to one of our greatest heroes is a blessing and an inspiring lesson in American history.
On the surface, this bio/doc uses pretty standard techniques. Lewis is interviewed and his recollections are as evocative as they are noble. Clips and photos of him as a 17-year-old around the time he met Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957 brim with strength and vitality. Recalling his historic 1964 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, when he was beaten by police, will send shivers down viewers’ backs and leave them in awe over his bravery: “I thought I was going to die on the bridge.”
Porter holds the camera steady. There is little style (contrary to more elaborate docs like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line). Minimal creative moves. Very straightforward filmmaking where what is shown and heard is far more important than flair. Viewers learn the details of what happened before and after that iconic moment on the bridge in Selma, Alabama and how Lewis never lost hope. They discover the intricate planning that went into his activism, from what to wear, how to present himself to how to withstand police violence.
Lewis’s thoughts on racism today, through the prism of his experiences, are completely illuminating and poignant. He points out the dangers of voter suppression involving Blacks, Latinos and young people and expresses his concerns: “My greatest fear is that one day we wake up and Democracy is gone.” This is coming from a man whose deep convictions and protests got him arrested 40 times and five times while he was in Congress.
Porter peppers the footage with politicians and civic leaders who eagerly attest to Lewis’ accomplishments: Diane Nash, one of the former heads of the student branch of the civil rights movement, SNCC; Hillary Clinton; AOC; and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Credit to Porter for also bringing up some of Lewis’s questionable strategies for winning his first congressional seat in Atlanta’s fifth district. Recent bios about iconic black figures like Toni Morrison failed to bring up any controversies in their lives or careers. In this more honest doc, the audience learns how Lewis beat Julian Bond out of his Congressional seat by bringing up his rival’s personal foibles. That shows that behind the affable smile and nurturing qualities, Lewis can play hardball during a campaign.
Tamar-kali’s musical score certainly adds a dramatic effect. Jessica Congdon’s editing keeps the pacing pretty fresh and cuts what easily could have been a miniseries from hundreds of hours of archival footage down to 96 minutes.
In this age of fierce debates over national healthcare, gun rights, police reform, gerrymandering and the future of basic civil rights, it’s easy to lose direction and momentum. But in moments of doubt, it is the work of civic leaders like Lewis that puts everything into perspective. Lewis: “When you lose the sense of fear, you are free!”
This had to be done. Someone had to chronicle a political life that began as an inquisitive, unafraid teenager who saw no boundaries and crescendoed into one of the country’s most hailed elders.
Lewis is as much a hero as he is a shaman. If activists and concerned citizens listen to his life story and sage advice they may find new ways to navigate through these turbulent times when hope and strategy is more vital than ever before.
John Lewis: Good Trouble is as instructive as it is inspiring.