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'John Lewis: Good Trouble': 60 Years of Fighting the Fight

By Tracie Lewis

Director Dawn Porter (Gideon's Army, Trapped) felt equipped for the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble. She had, after all, interviewed the US Congressman previously for the doc series Bobby Kennedy for President. Porter and her crew witnessed Lewis' tenacity and resilience first hand on the first full shoot day. The team set out to follow the congressman as he campaigned in Texas for Colin Allred, Lizzie Fletcher and Beto O'Rourke for the 2018 election. "Whatever I thought this movie was going to be, I was wrong," Porter admits. "This 80-year-old man kicked our butts." Porter reveals that after visiting five churches in one morning, a member of the crew needed a break. "We dove into the deep end with Mr. Lewis and got a first glimpse of what his life is like." This wasn’t the last time Lewis would surprise Porter. 

Lewis is an iconic American hero; he was cited by the Council of United Civil Rights Leadership as one of the "Big Six" leaders of the civil rights movement. But that’s not the story Porter wanted to tell. She wanted to go beyond the newspaper articles, photos, books, interviews and films to reveal a more intimate side of Lewis. 

Touring the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama, Porter witnessed Lewis' genuine surprise when he stopped at an exhibit that was about him and began to tell a story that she had never heard him tell before. This moment clicked for Porter and archivist Rich Remsberg, who found more than 100 additional sources of rare Lewis footage; Porter worked with her team to create a series of mini archival films. "It's not that often you get the time and resources to do that deep dive," Porter notes. "It was really a proud moment for me as a filmmaker to show how much he has occupied our historical record."

In her film, Porter has Lewis watch the short films during a sit-down interview. We see the giant screen sometimes behind Lewis and other times facing the screen while he watches images of himself. "We put him in a quiet dark theater with three screens around him," Porter explains. "I wanted him to tell me the story of what he was seeing. I wanted him to see what we see." Porter continues, "Whenever you are directing a film, your job is to find the environment that is going to help the subject tell you the story. I wanted him to tell his story, not me." Porter is able to capture Lewis' reaction of seeing the new footage on camera. "If John Lewis is looking into the camera, if he is looking you in the eye, he demands your attention in a different way," she maintains. "I wanted the screen to fill with him, with his presence, with his words, and allow the audience to really listen to what he is saying, to understand the pain, but also the pride, behind his work."

The film takes us to the family farm in Alabama where the "boy from Troy"—a nickname Martin Luther King Jr. gave him—grew up. The son of a sharecropper and one of nine siblings fondly recalls practicing speeches with an audience of chickens. Adding a layer of emotional depth linking Lewis to his roots, Porter called on composer Tamar-kali (Mudbound) for the film score. "I asked her to write a modern spiritual," Porter recalls. "I think she just did that beautifully. John Lewis' family and the land in Alabama—like so many Black families, there's a connection to the land, and we really tried to lift that up in some of the scenes in the movie."

At the heart of John Lewis is his belief system. His moral compass leads with all decision-making. Two events would forever change his life. As a young man, Lewis wrote a letter to King, who responded by inviting Lewis to join him in Georgia; Lewis was later introduced to James Lawson Jr., whom he credits as a major influence in his life. 

Lawson, a third-generation Methodist minister from Pennsylvania, went to India as a missionary, where he studied Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence to achieve political and social change. Lawson conducted role-play workshops and training for Lewis and other activists in nonviolent resistance. He was a key leader in the Memphis sanitation workers strike, participated in Freedom Rides, and helped shape the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). King called Lawson, "the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world." Pastor Lawson, now retired and Emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, continues to hold monthly nonviolent workshops. 

Lewis and Lawson lead similar paths. Lewis graduated from Fisk University with degrees in religion and philosophy and from the American Baptist Theological Seminary. Lewis was a Freedom Rider and chairman of SNCC; he organized sit-ins; at the age of 23, he was a keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington; and he was elected to US Congress in 1986, where he continues to serve Georgia's Fifth Congressional District. "He gets a lot of credit for being brave," Porter says, "but I wanted to highlight how strategic he and the other leaders were, and part of that strategy was their personal education." Porter continues, "That is how he crafted his personal philosophy, his way of living—not only leading, but living. Once you understand that, there is no other choice for him but nonviolence."

Porter cuts between the past and the present, going back to images from the 1960s to 2018, when she began to follow the Congressman, highlighting the unending struggle of the civil rights movement and the resilience in continuing the fight. 

Raising a fist, taking a knee, marching, protesting, sitting in, shutting down: These are all means of peaceful protests we have witnessed in the demand for equity and human rights. We are now in Civil Rights Era 2.0. Version 1.0 happened 55 years ago, when Lewis and Hosea Williams led protesters on a march for the right to vote on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on a day now referred to as "Bloody Sunday." The demonstrators took a moment to pray and were beaten by state troopers with billy clubs, bullwhips and tear gas. Lewis suffered a severe concussion and several others were hurt and killed. This event was documented with photographs and film that will forever live as our historical archive. This Memorial Day, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, while looking into a cell phone camera, as a 17-year-old captured the event for the world to see. Most people were angry, sad and shocked by what happened, and more Black lives have been taken since Floyd’s death. Lewis has experienced a lifetime of injustices, yet remains diligent to get up each morning and fight for civil liberties day after day, year after year.

During production Porter shared feelings with Lewis of the several examples of police brutality and militarization. "I would say to him, 'Mr. Lewis, this happened today or that happened or I am so upset about this.' And he would constantly remind me of the positive path forward. I think his point is, A just society is something that you are constantly nurturing, supporting, protecting and building. It is not an end; it is a lifelong way of living. I think he is not as surprised as some people that we continue to see immorality and violence. He believes from a lifetime of public service that in the end it is the peaceful constructive voices that will prevail. He points out that it may take a long time to get there, but we don’t have an option to give up."

Floyd's death served as a catalyst for change when society hit a tipping point. A Black person getting killed by police was different this time. Young people of different ethnicities took to the streets in protest in some cities for over a month for equal rights and justice. "I think it is gratifying to [Lewis]," Porter says. "He was once a 19-year-old going against the system, telling people things they didn’t want to hear. How could he be anything but proud that that continues as long as injustice continues?"

Lewis has publicly disclosed his latest fight: stage-four pancreatic cancer. There is a recent photo of the Congressman on social media standing by big yellow block letters spelling out "Black Lives Matter" on the street leading to the White House. Even while wearing a mask, the detection of satisfaction can be seen all over his face. This is extremely meaningful for Lewis. "I know that he is incredibly proud about the chorus of voices that we are hearing from not just this country but around the world in support of a just and equitable society," Porter acknowledges. "His challenge to everyone is, You absolutely must speak up and speak out, but what’s your next step? Where do we go from here? For him, the idea is what [Congresswoman] Ayanna Pressley said: 'It's to legislate.'" Pressley is among several other well-known politicians making an appearance in the film.

The distribution team behind Good Trouble spoke out in a bold way by holding a premiere screening at the Circle Cinema in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of the remaining enslaved African Americans, on June 19, 1865. Recognized in 47 states, but primarily celebrated in the South, the state holiday was observed this year by some of the biggest corporations. The day served as a history lesson for many, including some Black people. President Trump had originally chosen this day to hold his campaign rally but changed it to the following day after a public outcry. People were outraged because of the hateful massacre that happened in Tulsa 99 years ago. The Greenwood district, known as "Black Wall Street," where an affluent Black community flourished, was looted and burned by a mob of white people, killing over 300 residents and injuring 800 over a 24-hour period. "What better counter to an abhorrent plan than to have a film about an inclusive, hopeful, positive leader who is still fighting the fight," Porter asserts. "We think a screening of the John Lewis movie in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Juneteenth is the epitome of patriotism and positivity and that is what we choose to put out into the world."

Porter, a gracious individual in her own right, says, "I wish I can be more like him. Knowing what he has seen and what he’s done and experienced, that has been very moving for me to think about. [He is] thoughtful, determined and resolute, but never hopeless, not one time. The most surprising thing was learning about his love for art, his extensive art collection. He's really funny. He is a person that enjoys life and people and food and dancing, art and music. I am struck by his continued optimism." 

Initially, the film was set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a gala event with partner Time Studios. The strategy now includes is a large virtual screening for the Smithsonian Museum for African American History and Culture members with a talk-back, a release including eight streaming virtual platforms, availability to schools and churches and a broadcast on CNN the third week in September. Says Porter, "I am thrilled at how many people are looking to get into some good trouble!"

John Lewis: Good Trouble is streaming on multiple platforms through Magnolia Pictures.

Tracie Lewis (no relation) is a member of Brown Girls Doc Mafia, writes, is directing a documentary and teaches the history of American film and World Cinemas at Chaffey College.