“John Lewis: Good Trouble”: Stirring Documentary of a Hero for Our Times
“I lost all sense of fear. When you lose your sense of fear, you are free.”
This was the recognition that came to John Lewis, the late civil rights icon and Congressman, when he had his skull broken by Alabama state police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. At the point of death, beaten by officers of the law who would deny him his right to vote — and, elementally, his right to dignity — Lewis lost all fear.
It is a message — getting free of fear — that resonates and instructs, not only in the present political struggle, as our white supremacist president and his abettors, the Republican party, seek to disenfranchise the African-American voter and delegitimize the Black Lives Matter movement in this post-George Floyd moment. More, this message resonates and instructs in all times and in all struggles, including the present coronavirus pandemic. With all the world enduring the same deadly viral threat, Lewis’ counsel — “Don’t get lost in a sea of despair” — can buoy.
John Lewis was about more than endurance, though. He was about moving the dial — the ethical-moral dial — on social justice. “I hated the system,” he said, the system of “White” and “Colored,” and he fought it all his life, making the moral point over and over and over: “When you see something that’s not right, that’s not fair, that’s not just,” Lewis intoned repeatedly, “you must find a way to make trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble.” In an age of the anti-hero who can’t be bothered to care, John Lewis was the tonic antithesis: a hero. (See also here, here, and here.)
Lewis gained his heroic wisdom the hard way, not from theory or observation, but with his body and soul positioned at the front lines, in unflinching dedication to the cause of nonviolent social change. Historians might call it ironic that an advocate for nonviolence got beaten, violently, so often, and was arrested, jailed. Lewis said he would “take a concussion for the conscience of the country.” Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights lawyer later appointed the first African-American to the U.S. Supreme Court, asked the young Lewis why he persisted in his sacrifice: Because, Lewis said, the point was to build a movement. Movements, to coalesce and to gain liftoff, take that kind of rock-like dedication — “adamantine” as The Economist put it — and John Lewis was its personification. Former president Barack Obama in his eulogy called Lewis a “Founding Father” of that better day in America, when our ideals and reality finally meet. On his Inauguration Day, Obama inscribed his photo to Lewis, “Because of you, John.”
Lewis’ wisdom, along with no small amount of wit, is presented stirringly in the new documentary, “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” released just weeks before Lewis died on July 17.
Director Dawn Porter is the ideal match for this heroic figure. Her film, blessedly free of special effects and zippy editing, focuses on the man and his worthy mission. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s is seen through Lewis’ eyes, his memory. In aid of this focus, we see Lewis watching archival footage from the revolution — some footage he had never seen before. We see how moved he is, even stunned, at what his younger self, and all the “young people,” achieved. It’s an inspired technique — and inspiring, it’s to be hoped, to young people searching for their life’s purpose.
This technique animates History, memorably. So often History becomes abstract, distant: What could be more banal than a “sit-in”? But to see, in this film, the sit-ins that the civil rights activists staged at lunch counters in the South — the viciousness of the white attackers, the determination of the activists — is (viewer advisory) to get sick all over again at white supremacy and, at the same time, to behold what courage looks like. (The activists role-played beforehand, determined to look their attacker “in the eye.”) Kudos to Porter for unearthing an abundance of rare footage, much of which this former civil rights activist had never seen.
In this rich mosaic of a film, we see all the signal events of the revolution, with John Lewis at the lead, from the sit-ins to the marches to the signing, by President Lyndon Johnson, of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lewis’ siblings relate how worried the family was for his welfare: Their parents pleaded with him, “Don’t get in trouble”; once allied with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he formulated his credo to make “good trouble.” We see Lewis the Congressman meeting constituents, advocates, the public. The late Congressman Elijah Cummings tells how he was often mistaken by the public for Lewis — and was glad to be mistaken for a “great man.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls Lewis “the conscience of the Congress.”
This great man had his defeats. He was ousted (“de-elected”) as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNIC) by Stokely Carmichael’s challenge of “Black power” — another historical irony: Lewis himself was considered a “firebrand” by the movement elders, also he considered nonviolence to be a militant strategy. (His movement comrade, Congressman James Clyburn, confesses he is not as nonviolent as Lewis.) In his bid for Congress, Lewis ran against his close friend and comrade Julian Bond, and won, altering their friendship forever.
Of course, the biggest defeat occurred in 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, ruling that, with racism a thing of the past (Mr. Obama was in the White House), historically problematic states no longer had to meet federal “pre-clearances” in conducting their elections. And with proto-autocratic Donald Trump in the White House, Lewis fears waking up some morning “and American democracy is gone.” Lewis believed democracy is not a state, but an act, that must be protected, with its protectors deepened.
The film has many delightful moments of humanity having fun; I loved the reunion of movement activists breaking out, a capella, in the song they made up while sitting in jail. We see Lewis recalling a teacher who told him, “Read, son, read.” The mosaic is made even richer by the presence of many white people of conscience, seen from the civil rights era onward — a promising note at this moment when White and Black America are working at the final settlement of our legacy of racism.
(Porter screened the film for Lewis once she learned of his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer; he pronounced the film “so powerful, so powerful.”)
What now? John Lewis would tell us we know what we must do. In the historical context of Lewis’ life and the film, Act One was the march for justice, with victory attained in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Act Two was the reversal, in a reactionary time, when the Supreme Court gutted the Act. What will Act Three be? In ancient Greece, where Drama originated, both Greece and great drama ended in tragedy. Can America avert tragedy? We can if we make “good trouble”: “Mask up, please.” “Black lives do matter.” And, in honor of the man who secured voting rights for all, we must revitalize the Voting Rights Act, we must endeavor to save American democracy — and we must exercise the franchise this November: “Vote, people!”
For John Lewis’ final letter to America published in The New York Times on the day of his funeral, see here. For video of highlights of Barack Obama’s eulogy to Lewis, see here; for full transcript, see here. For interview with director Dawn Porter on “Amanpour & Company,” see here. For trailer of the film, see here.