What’s a word that describes the feeling of being overwhelmingly depressed and inspired at the same time? American, maybe? Whatever the precise term, that’s how director Dawn Porter’s new documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, will make you feel.
This lean but comprehensive look at the titular Congressman’s six decades spent fighting this country’s smorgasbord of social ills is uplifting with its examples of relentless courage in the face of real, grade-A shitbaggery. It is also demoralizing, in that it ends with a keen understanding that the progress made thus far is like the most fragile of glass, and there’s a monster tap dancing on it…
Lewis—referred to as “the boy from Troy” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in a tale Lewis oft repeats—marched from Selma to Montgomery in his youth and became a tenacious legislator in adulthood. Anecdotes and memories of his personal journey are damn near a parallel for the entire country’s civil rights saga. Except for that part where Lewis is still fighting for change while America itself seems content to roll back the clock to half-past antebellum.
Somewhat surprisingly, but cleverly, the documentary begins in the here and now, or at least the fairly recent. 2018 is officially three decades ago in COVID time, but Good Trouble anchors itself around the Democrats reclaiming the House, asking as many questions about what comes next as showing what Lewis helped bring about before.
Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “The Squad” show up, paying homage to Lewis’s example and leadership, it’s not all champagne popping, glassy-eyed celebration. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court and a prescient understanding of the peril facing democracy loom large in the film. A pallor is also cast by an unflinchingly honest look at how Lewis first gained his Georgia House seat: by winning the white vote in his district after taking a symbolic drug test.
For those unfamiliar with Lewis, Good Trouble is a deft primer and able compendium of events and ideas. As a film, it is stale and static, with many shots of Lewis literally watching events from his life play out and that old familiar documentary staple: a merry-go-round of talking head interviews. It is a classic case where the subject is ultimately more interesting than the film itself.
It’s hard not to imagine what Good Trouble would have been like had it been shot during the current climate. Lewis is a staunch advocate of passive resistance and nonviolence. Easily, the most uncomfortable footage in the documentary is a clip of training for that kind of protest, which includes learning how to stay calm when N-bombs are dropped like someone burst a Mel Gibson pinata. Hearing pundits squawk and pearl clutch about the ongoing protests is just literal white noise. But hearing Lewis bring 60-plus years of activism to bear on this moment in depth would be fascinating and vital.
It’s hard to find something bad to say about Good Trouble, but it is also hard to find something remarkably complimentary to say about the documentary itself and not the man at its center. Considering how much our collective history allegedly depends on Confederate statues, a trip down Lewis’s memory lane is ultimately quite valuable.
Grade = B
Other critical voices to consider
Not a ton of other reviews for this one out there yet, but I did find this review/interview with Porter interesting. It’s from Risa Sarachan over at Forbes.