“My greatest fear is one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia in a new documentary about his life.
But this is not a man who despairs. Lewis never has given up and, undoubtedly, never will.
“As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can,” said the title subject of “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” which you’ll be able to stream starting Friday through the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts and through Cinema Detroit, along with numerous digital platforms and on demand options.
With Hollywood’s summer blockbusters temporarily paused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this film by director Dawn Porter provides the superhero inspiration you’ve been missing.
It isn’t about someone who can fly or has a vibranium shield. It’s the true story of a civil rights activist who risked his life for a righteous cause, became an influential legislator and, at 80, continues to wage war against systemic racism, all while battling stage-four pancreatic cancer.
With its July 3 arrival date, right before Independence Day, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” feels like a balm for a nation currently so divided that wearing a mask is seen by some as a political choice, not a life-saving measure.
The movie shows Lewis as the towering icon he is today. Using footage from 2018, it depicts him campaigning for Democratic candidates and drawing attention to voter suppression before the midterms elections. There are tributes from fellow leaders like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip James Clyburn, and from rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But the heart of the story is his early journey, long before he acquired political clout.
The son of sharecroppers, Lewis grew up in the small town of Troy, Alabama. In interviews with him and his siblings, a picture emerges of a serious child who practiced preaching to a congregation of his family’s chickens and who later, as a teenager, wore a tie and carried a Bible to high school each day.
Porter chronicles how Lewis went from being a student activist while at college in Nashville to working side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement. The segments detailing how Lewis was immersed in the 1961 Freedom Riders effort and the 1963 March on Washington may be dotted with black-and-white film clips and newspaper clippings, but they feel as fresh and relevant as smart-phone images from the massive 2020 demonstrations.
The initial chapter of the documentary revisits what happened at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. Lewis nearly lost his life when Alabama state troopers attacked peaceful protesters attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery. Hit in the head with a baton, Lewis was hospitalized with a concussion and fractured skull.
“I thought I was going to die on the bridge,” he said bluntly.
The Voting Rights Act that became law in 1965 was the result of the courage of Lewis and others dedicated to change. But a 2013 decision by the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision that required certain states to get permission from the federal government before altering their election laws.
In 2019, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure to restore federal oversight. But Republicans opposed the bill and the GOP-led Senate hasn’t brought it to the floor for a vote.
And, thus, the message of “Good Trouble” is this: We’ve come a long way as a nation, but we still have a long way to go. To complete the journey, it will take the dedication and action that Lewis has embodied since his youth.
As he said during a clip of a 2018 speech, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
With tensions and anxieties flaring across the American psyche, this film is a celebration that’s needed. When Lewis moves through the public in the pre-2020 scenes, people reach out to him wherever he goes, to hug him, touch him, shake his hand.