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film 'John Lewis: Good Trouble’ A Portrait of an American Hero

John Lewis declares that, during the 1960s, he was arrested “a few times.” Then the elder statesman and éminence grise of the civil rights movement pauses before correcting himself in front of the large Dallas crowd he’s addressing: “40 times…"

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John Lewis being arrested in Selma, Alabama, in a scene from the documentary 'John Lewis: Good Trouble.', Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis declares that, during the 1960s, he was arrested “a few times.” Then the elder statesman and éminence grise of the civil rights movement pauses before correcting himself in front of the large Dallas crowd he’s addressing: “40 times…and since I’ve been in Congress, another five times. I’m probably gonna get arrested again for something.” If it was any other person over the age of 75 saying this in a public forum (with the exception of Jane Fonda), you might think this was stump-speech bluster. Lewis isn’t exaggerating, and he’s probably right regarding the “again” part. For the longtime Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, civil disobedience is both a constitutional right and a necessity, now more than ever. “Get in trouble,” he implores the cheering Texans. “Good trouble.”

Dawn Porter’s documentary is smart to use that phrase as a subtitle; if nothing else, this tribute reminds you that Lewis is a living example of how much you can accomplish not just through speaking truth to power but gumming up the works. Born and raised in Alabama — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would refer to him as “the boy from Troy” — Lewis grew up wanting to be a preacher, and was the sort of kid that, per his siblings, wore a tie to school. While attending college in Nashville, he began to organize lunch-counter sit-ins and boycotts, refining the art of the non-violent student protest. (There’s a sequence of Lewis and his fellow activists teaching others how to react to racist confrontations that alternates between giddy teenage horseplay and being absolutely horrifying.) He’d was one of the first Freedom Riders to travel from Washington D.C. to the deep south, and one of the first to be beaten when they stepped off the bus at Rock Hill, South Carolina.

That life-threatening encounter didn’t stop him from wanting to get back out there, however, and Good Trouble runs through Lewis’ accomplishments as the movement gains serious momentum: becoming chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), fighting for voter registration in Selma, being the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, encountering “a sea of blue” as the march to Montgomery begins, the Edmund Pettis Bridge, “Bloody Sunday.” To know this story already, whether through textbooks or montages of 1960’s social unrest or Ava DuVernay’s stunning Selma (2014) is one thing. His recounting of what happened that day and his experience being knocked to the ground and attacked is something else entirely. It is a first-hand remembrance of stone-cold fear. It is bone-chilling.

So, for that matter, are the scenes of Alabama state troopers trampling and gassing protesters. Porter has done her homework in regards to unearthing rare archival clips of both the turbulent times at large and specific events in which Lewis played a huge part — at one point, the congressman tells her, “Dawn, I’m seeing footage I’ve never seen before.” And in the doc’s most inspirational stylistic touch, the modern-day Lewis is filmed not only watching history unfold in black-and-white newsreels but positioned him in front of them. The elderly man is both observing his younger self and, in an odd way, communing with him — there’s a momentary sense of the past and present folding in on itself.

Which plays into the doc’s other objective: underlining the fact that Lewis is still on the frontlines regarding these battles. Viewers are continually whisked from 1965 to 2018, where once again, voter suppression has become an issue. He’s still stumping for candidates and investing time and effort in elections; we get to sit next to him as he watches the agony and ecstasy of the ’18 midterm results come in. (Georgia, you may remember, was the site of a political shitstorm regarding the governorship.) He’s still fighting the good fight in Congress, whether it’s through legislation or actions like his 2016 sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives over a gun-control initiative. “We’re still in the civil rights movement, because we are still in the civil rights struggle,” notes Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, and even though Lewis remains the living embodiment of the early days of that movement, he’s not willing to let the younger generation handle the struggle on their own. The man is determined to go out swinging.

Which plays into the doc’s other objective: underlining the fact that Lewis is still on the frontlines regarding these battles. Viewers are continually whisked from 1965 to 2018, where once again, voter suppression has become an issue. He’s still stumping for candidates and investing time and effort in elections; we get to sit next to him as he watches the agony and ecstasy of the ’18 midterm results come in. (Georgia, you may remember, was the site of a political shitstorm regarding the governorship.) He’s still fighting the good fight in Congress, whether it’s through legislation or actions like his 2016 sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives over a gun-control initiative. “We’re still in the civil rights movement, because we are still in the civil rights struggle,” notes Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, and even though Lewis remains the living embodiment of the early days of that movement, he’s not willing to let the younger generation handle the struggle on their own. The man is determined to go out swinging.

Good Trouble definitely presents a case for not putting a cap on Lewis’s legacy just yet. It also comes close to fawning over its subject in the same manner as the legion of folks we see taking selfies with the venerable representative in airport terminals, outside of churches, and on city streets. You couldn’t accuse it of being a straight hagiography of Lewis, though it’d be perilously easy to make one of him. Yet you also may wish Porter and her collaborators went a little deeper on how, say, the defection of Kwame Ture (then known as Stokely Carmichael) from SNCC and the Black Power movement alienated the nonviolent activist. Or that they had pressed Lewis a bit more on what happened to his friendship with Julian Bond after he beat him for that congressional seat via tactics that caused his close comrade to publicly call him out. Clips demonstrate that he was tight-lipped about the fallout then, and time has not made him any chattier on the subject, it would seem. If you liked that viral video of Lewis dancing to “Happy,” you’ll see it replayed plenty of times here.

The subject’s virtues, however, outweigh any of the film’s weak spots. At the age of 80, Lewis is still in the trenches, exemplifying the better angels of our political bureaucracy and actively going up against those who’d take advantage of an undeniably broken system. It’s hard to walk away from Good Trouble and think of Lewis simply as a hero for African-Americans, or the modern progressive movement, or card-carrying liberals. He is an American hero, full stop. And if there was anyone who we should look to right now in order to start some trouble — necessary trouble, good trouble — it’s him.

'John Lewis: Good Trouble' is screening though July 23 at  Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema

David Fear is a Senior Editor and critic at Rolling Stone, and the former Film Editor of Time Out NY. His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Village Voice, Esquire, Spin, NY Daily News, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Moviemaker, Nashville Weekly and numerous other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, as all writers must.