The worst thing you can see when beginning a documentary nowadays is the logo for CNN Films. With the exception of Apollo 11, every documentary they’ve released – from Blackfish to Three Identical Strangers to The Reagan Show to RBG – has suffered the same fate: boiling down an interesting observation or individual into a milquetoast recitation of facts without anything resembling insight or commentary. While a documentary doesn’t necessarily have to take a stand, it has to say something. Otherwise you’re not creating a thesis – you’ve made a book report. So my hopes weren’t exactly high for John Lewis: Good Trouble, the documentary released earlier this year that received a status boost after the Civil Rights legend’s passing last July. However, while the documentary suffers many of the same pitfalls of its predecessors, Good Trouble stands tall as the best of its brethren to date, not only because of the extraordinary nature of its protagonist, but because director Dawn Porter approaches the material both with an angle and a sense of innovation.
From the jump, it’s clear that Good Trouble knows exactly how to tell its story and use its protagonist. Lewis was a gifted orator and brilliant strategist, and these details shine through from the jump, thanks to Porter’s decision to take a back seat and just let Lewis be Lewis. It is completely unnecessary for the film to reveal that as a child, he was interested in becoming a preacher, or was inspired by his faith – simply listening to him speak and motivate a crowd makes that information clear. The film places a lot of emphasis on Lewis’ speeches, as well as the backstory surrounding his catchphrase “Good Trouble,” to the point you’ll hear the same repetition about the conversation with his grandparents that inspired his eventual legacy about fifty times. And yet, it never feels repetitive. Instead, it plays as a call to arms, using this mantra as a mission statement that not only shrouds the entire film, but informs everything that we see.
It informs Lewis’ actions training and planning the SNCC protests at the diners and buses. It informs his voting record, which includes key votes in favor of an assault weapons ban and universal voter registration and against the Iraq War (both times), the infamous Crime Bill, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And it informs the private aspects of his life, including his friendships, mentorships, and general sense of goodness. In a time when it’s hard to find heroes to look up to, he shines through here as an example of decency and modesty. One of my favorite moments comes during an interview with Henry Louis Gates, whose research into Lewis’ past found that his great-great grandfather was one of the first to vote in Georgia under the Reconstruction Act, followed by a history without voting until John marched at the Pettis Bridge in Selma. His answer of “I guess it’s in my DNA” is a great moment for Lewis, and a touching moment of modesty, but it also carries the weight of legacy, as well as repeated history (more on that in a minute), as it demonstrates how history has a way of undermining progress (be it Reconstruction or the Civil Rights Act) in order to rewrite history and set back a movement.
And yet, while the esteemed former Congressman’s prowess as an orator is more than capable of carrying the film, Porter incorporates a fascinating inclusion into her interviews that not only punctuate Lewis’ pertinent points, but elevate the story’s narrative and message. Instead of simply editing in newsreels, footage, and photographs as a means of reciting historical events, Porter screens her footage for Lewis himself, allowing him to comment on the contents and the impact they had. This means that we get to not only hear Lewis’ thoughts and musings, but physically see his reaction to the historical occurrences. It’s certainly powerful to watch the Bloody Sunday footage and see the infamous photos of a bloodied Lewis underneath an officer’s baton, but it’s another to watch the octogenarian welling up as he recalls the traumatic events.
Porter continues to use the footage as a means of empathy and investigation of Lewis’ memory and emotions. It’s one thing to watch or hear about the openly racist interviewees on television programs of the 50s (as much as white folks like myself may want to deny it, there’s always been and always will be a large swath who can proudly sneer the n-word while looking directly into the camera), or to learn about the cruelty inflicted upon the Freedom Riders, but it’s another to see an 80-something Black man looking up at a massive white screen as these images, insults, and memories flood back to him. It’s even more riveting when you hear him discuss the footage and casually mention that “[He’s] seeing this footage for the first time.” Each of these glimpses allows us to relive modern history as well as empathize with an impressive historic figure, and it all culminates in a powerfully triumphant moment as John beams with pride revisiting his lesser-known, yet incredibly resonant speech at the same March on Washington where his mentor Martin Luther King declared that he had a dream.
Of course, Porter isn’t simply interested in a recitation of historical facts and moments. She wants to use this footage to inform the audience of John Lewis actions in the current day, to draw attention to glaring examples of history repeating itself, and show the modern-day legacy her protagonist has laid out for a new generation. And, quite frankly, she accomplishes this all quite brilliantly. For example, most of Lewis’ modern-day footage comes during the few days surrounding the 2018 midterms, and draws comparisons between Lewis’ fight against voter suppression laws in the 1960s and the loopholes that emerged today in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s eradication of Lewis’ greatest achievement (an achievement lauded in the film by both political parties, ironically). It’s specifically timely as the greatest example of widespread fraud and abuse of these loopholes came in Lewis’ home state of Georgia during its gubernatorial race. In fact, so much time is spent with Lewis and his modern day fight, it takes a surprising amount of time for the film to flash back to the 60s. Instead, we follow Lewis as he watches famous race after famous race, oftentimes mourning his rivals’ victories (like Ted Cruz vs. Beto O’Rourke), but only ever criticizing or condemning outright monsters like Steve King. It’s an impressive display of modesty and civility, given today’s current political climate.
We also receive a glimpse of the practice, rehearsal, and drilling that goes into being a Congressman – some of my favorite moments involve Lewis practicing with his team how to highlight important questions, deliver a proper joke to lighten the mood, and so on. But throughout these lighter touches, we are invited to reflect upon the ways history repeats itself, whether outright spoken or hinted through allusion. There’s something timely to the world of today in Lewis’ famous remark “If we’re breaking the law, arrest us – don’t beat us.” There’s an emphasis placed on how quickly states returned to voting laws the minute the 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutted an act declared “the greatest U.S. achievement in modern history” by both sides of the political ailes (27 states in five years). And when Mitch McConnell gleefully stomps on the Voting Rights Act’s grave, it is impossible to not think of the image of George Wallace shown forty minutes prior, without Porter ever overtly drawing the conclusion. Good Trouble is about history repeating itself, and Lewis’ efforts to prevent this horrific cycle.
However, not all the glimpses of modern day America are so glaringly negative. There’s still a lot for Lewis to be thankful for – and vice versa. A good portion of the narrative allows for insight from friends and mentees across the political spectrum, each looking to Lewis as an inspirational figure. Friends from the Civil Rights era praise him for his unfathomable ability to practice forgiveness and patience. In a moment of irony, Representative Elijah Cummings beams with pride as he recounts the number of times he has been mistaken for Lewis (years before the duo were mixed up in BOTH of their obituaries by Fox News and Senator Marco Rubio). Hell, the film even interviews and finds footage of Republicans praising his legacy, including Congressman Sensenbrenner (who admittedly does try to take credit for the bulk of the 2007 Voting Rights Act) and Presidents Bush and Reagan.
The most exciting moments come from the sheer joy in Lewis’ voice upon learning of the breakthroughs in diversity made during the 2018 midterms – the first Latino from Texas, the first Muslim member of Congress, and a whole litany of women and minorities. Regardless of your thoughts on Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hearing them discuss Lewis’ influence on them as children is beautiful enough for all to understand and appreciate. One of my favorite interviews of the film, and best descriptions of Lewis’ views as well as the country as a whole, comes from Omar’s anectdote: “He was willing to get a concussion to wake the conscience of this country. [When I asked him about this}, he instructed me to love this Democracy like you love yourself.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, and one we all should live by. Plus, it allows for the brilliant moment of irony when the film places Cortez and Speaker Pelosi back-to-back for interviews, underlining the juxtaposition and animosity between the two. I tend to believe that CNN made this decision unaware of the humor involved, but I appreciated it nonetheless.
But despite the vast improvements made in the CNN Documentaries format, this is still a CNN documentary, and it still suffers the flaws of its predecessors. While Porter has made great strides in her cinematic choices, there are still editing and musical decisions that prove almost decisively that CNN Studios do not understand how to make a film. Meanwhile, I am a little disappointed in the choices made in what is “important” and what is expendable. Lillian Lewis is an equally exciting figure in both the Civil Rights story and in John’s growth as a human being, and yet she is casually mentioned and explained away as an afterthought. Either excise her from the film to focus on John or give her legacy its proper due, don’t use the late woman’s memory as an afterthought. Similarly, the film brings up Lewis’ defeat at SNCC to rising star Stokely Carmichael – a detail that seems worthy of a documentary in and of itself.
Yet the most glaring issue facing the film is the glorification of Lewis as a whole, sans nuance. I am perfectly willing to beatify John Lewis in the Church of Public Opinion, but we can’t pretend he was perfect. Especially not when the film drops a bombshell in the final ten minutes in which Lewis won his Congressional seat by publicly betraying his best friend, the ultimate sleazy act and display of aggressive power-grabbing. The film condemns this moment, as it rightly should, but then immediately glosses over it without dissecting the ramifications. I cannot understand this decision. If it’s important, why not explore its impact on Lewis’ conscience and legacy? And if it’s not important, why bring it up to diminish the man, or treat something this major as an afterthought? It’s an insanely haphazard portrayal of this information. Still, the film ultimately succeeds in ways its predecessors have not. All CNN Films thus far have concluded with a “propaganda ending,” displaying their protagonists as quirky, lovable pop culture icons in somewhat detestable ways (RBG famously ended with a fifteen minute explanation of what “Notorious RBG” means, ruining a beautiful tribute to an iconic figure). And while Good Trouble makes the same decision, it avoids the obnoxiousness of its predecessors, both by remaining shorter as well as punctuating his message with the famous, fun little video where he dances to “Happy.” Kudos to Porter for avoiding the same pratfalls as her contemporaries.
John Lewis: Good Trouble is an example of taking a template and doing it right. While it takes a few smart, interesting risks, it’s still just a decent version of a documentary we’ve seen hundreds of times before. But that being said, why is that a bad thing? John Lewis lived an extraordinary, important life, and he was a catalyst for so much good, necessary change. He was, in every way, a true American hero. He deserves to have his story told, even if only as a straightforward documentary. It’s sort of fitting that I watched this film and write this review the same weekend that Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the recipient of the last major CNN documentary, RBG – passed away, just two months after Lewis himself. It’s a painful reminder that these Civil Rights icons (whether for minorities, women, LGBTQ+, etc.) were living, breathing people, and that despite their storied, remarkable lives, their fight, and their missions remain incomplete. That’s why documentaries like this are important. They not only keep the memories of true heroes alive after they inevitably pass, they remind the viewers that it is necessary to fight back against injustice and intolerance, to stand up for what is right, and to see what true leadership, true heroism, and true sainthood looks like. John Lewis is an American hero, and even if his film was imperfect, his message and his actions were. And that’s what this film represents.