John Lewis is a great American. Between his work on the front lines of the civil rights movement to his decades in the House of Representatives, John Lewis has dedicated his life to fighting injustice in America. The life and ongoing fight of John Lewis is now the subject of the new documentary from director Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble. Unfortunately, this great American doesn’t get to be the subject of a great movie as John Lewis: Good Trouble is a scattershot work of biographical filmmaking. Too often the film opts for platitudes from its famous talking heads instead taking us deeper into the victories, the losses, and the unwavering humanity of John Lewis’ remarkable life.
Good Trouble tries to do a lot in its rather compact 90-minute package. It wants to provide us with a candid portrait of John Lewis as he works in his office, rallies for ideologically aligned candidates, and meets various citizens honored to encounter a civil rights legend. It also wants to be a straight biography with archival footage, interviews, and personal recollections by Lewis himself. Finally, the film also wants to be a call to action for policies that Lewis has advocated throughout his decades in public life, most notably a restoration of the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of civil rights legislation signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson but eventually gutted by John Roberts’ Supreme Court in 2013. These varying approaches could possibly work on their own but they never coalesce in John Lewis: Good Trouble, leaving the film jerking back and forth between its various identities with varying degrees of success.
The aspect that works best in Good Trouble is when we get a glimpse of the candid John Lewis. Moments where Lewis is approached by people in the airport is a heartwarming moment, and is punctuated with an amusing anecdote by the late Rep. Elijah Cummings who jokes about the many times he pretended to be Lewis due to their similar appearance. Lewis letting his guard down in his office and dancing is another example of the film showcasing a lighter side to this American icon. In these moments you get a true sense of how great this man’s accomplishments are and how he’s never let this robust legacy detach him from his constituents and the constant need to keep pressing for change.
There’s a deep roster of talking heads to weigh in with anecdotes about John Lewis’ life in the public eye. Some of these interviews – namely Bill & Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi – present the kind of bland platitudes you’d expect from lifelong politicians. However, the more interesting interview contributions come from the younger congressional delegation – including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib – who share how Lewis has inspired them before becoming a mentor to these new members of the House. It’s in this younger generation of politicians that you can see how Lewis leads his protégés in both tactics and rhetoric.
Perhaps the most fascinating thread in Good Trouble is the one that feels the most unresolved – Lewis’ contentious 1986 congressional campaign against his good friend Julian Bond. Lewis and Bond were friends for years and the mudslinging in the campaign caused a strain on their relationship. I found this the most fascinating part to this portrait of Lewis’ but then the film just moves on from it, leaving me wanting more of Lewis’ reflections on the civic and moral compromises that come with seeking elected office and crafting legislation. That kind of information would be more informative than a checklist of legislation that Lewis had sponsored during his years in Congress.
Towards the end of the film, Dawn Porter shifts back to the Voting Rights Act and the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the decision that gutted the landmark legislation. While the advocacy that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act is a key part of Lewis’ legacy, it’s at this point that Good Trouble becomes more of an activist film than a documentary about an activist. I say this even though I agree with the points raised, but the problem is that the time dedicated to electoral problems raised by decimation of the Voting Rights Acts plays like a condensed summation of the issues. This segment is not nearly as persuasive as the inspirational example set by Lewis in the best parts of the film.
There are moments in John Lewis: Good Trouble that are full of inspiration. It’s hard not to be moved by the commitment to justice that John Lewis has dedicated his life to, but it’s a life that deserves a documentary willing to dig beyond the more well-known achievements with glossy infographics.
John Lewis: Good Trouble
Civil rights icon and long-time member of the House of Representatives, the life and achievements of John Lewis is the focus of the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, a well-intentioned but scattershot work of non-fiction filmmaking that falls short of the greatness of its subject.