When Vice President Elect Kamala Harris addressed the nation on November 7, she opened her speech with a quote from the late Georgia congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis: “Democracy is not a state, it is an act.” In a New York Times opinion piece, published less than two weeks after his death of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80 on July 17, Lewis wrote: “Each generation must do its part to help build what we called the beloved Community, a national and a world society at peace with itself.”
Magnolia Pictures’ new documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” vividly illustrates how he helped build that beloved Community and worked in the Congress to make life better not only for black Americans but for all of the country’s citizens. Directed by Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army,” “Trapped”), “John Lewis: Good Trouble” opened at the digital Tribeca Film Festival in April, was released nationally on July 3 and debuted on CNN on Sept. 27.
“John Lewis” is nominated for three Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards: political documentary, historical/biographical documentary and director. Is an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in its horizon? There’s a good chance. Remember “RBG,” the 2018 documentary on the beloved Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also died this year, won the Academy Award.
Reviews have also been strong (it’s currently rated 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). Christy Lemire found the film to be a “celebration of the ageless octogenarian, tracing his activism from key moments in the civil rights movement of the 1960s through his efforts to preserve and protect Americans’ ability to vote, which is increasingly in peril nationwide.” She added: “Director Dawn Porter’s film is an intimate homage to both the legend and the man as spry and lively as Lewis himself. It is rather straightforward structurally, though, with its combination of rich archival photos and footage, interviews with fellow political luminaries, and verité segments of Lewis going good-naturedly about his crowded days.”
One of the best moments in the film finds Lewis joyously dancing to Pharrell Williams’’ “Happy.” But it’s the footage of the young Lewis fighting for civil rights in the 1960s alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King that is most riveting. There are stomach-turning newsreel clips of Lewis being gassed and beaten along with other civil rights protestors on March 7, 1965 in Selma, Alabama as they attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Lewis was an original Freedom Rider and a speaker at the landmark March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. He also went door to door in the South the following decade in order to register blacks to vote. “I really hope viewers take John Lewis’ message to heart and don’t give up, because we can’t afford to be cynical right now,” said Porter.
On June 7, Lewis made his last public appearance at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington D.C., the site of the protests against racial injustice and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Though he entered the hospital the following day, Lewis noted “I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.”
In that New York Times article, he reflected on this new movement: “You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.”
Good trouble, indeed.
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