In mainstream left politics, Congressman John Lewis is the closest thing we have to a saint. He was a chairman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and helped organize the famous March on Washington back in 1963. He has been in Congress since 1986, and when he is public, everyone is eager to chat with him. John Lewis: Good Trouble is a fawning documentary that repeats its main points too often. Perhaps director Dawn Porter meant her film to be a simplistic biography for students, except even that conceit is too generous. This film would rather insult your intelligence than provide actual context.
It is easy to like John Lewis. He is a soft-spoken man with a conscience, and he has reserves of humor he saves for his closest friends. To know him is to know he collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr., and his belief/success to nonviolence is a testament to its power. Right there, however, is where the film starts to lose its insight. Nonviolence is not an ideology, or a point of view. It is a deliberate strategy, one that Lewis felt would be most effective because of its capacity to expose bigotry in its most obvious form. Good Trouble does not seem to understand that distinction, and instead lets Lewis repeat the same anecdotes ad nauseum. There is a scene late in the film where Lewis hosts a party for all his former staffers, and they joke about his willingness to repeat himself. They had to live with this quirk of his personality, but it does not mean an audience should be as tolerant.
Porter has an interesting conceit to her film, yet she loses interest in exploring it. There are some scenes where Lewis is in a room, and he watches old footage from his life, with a focus on his time as a young civil rights leader, often being beaten or arrested. Maybe Porter expected some interesting stories, except Lewis turned out not to be so introspective (this film has nothing on The Fog of War). Instead, we have many scenes of Lewis’ daily life, including him in Georgia as he watches the election night returns during the 2018 midterms.
In all these scenes, he comes off as an engaged, charming man, although there is no sense of his interiority. When his colleagues speak about him, they speak about an abstracted sense of what he represents (the film includes many interviews with “The Squad,” including AOC and Ayanna Presley, who talk about the idea of him, while his longtime Congressional colleagues could have been more illuminating).
There is one legitimate episode in Lewis’ life, and Porter glosses over it. He first was elected to Congress in 1986, and his primary opponent was Julian Bond, a SNCC co-founder who also helped establish the Southern Poverty Law Center and was chairman of the NAACP. Lewis and Bond were old friends, but their primary ended up being bitter. Its focal point was when Lewis took a drug test, and dared Bond to do the same thing. Bond called him out on it, implying it was a dirty trick, and the film has a marked disinterest in exploring this episode further. It would get in the way of deifying Lewis.
Toward the end of Good Trouble, there is a halfhearted attempt to highlight his legislative record. There is a checklist of his votes, including pivotal legislation he co-sponsored. The film treats co-sponsorship as some kind of pivotal leadership, when it actually requires little sacrifice or effort. John Lewis’ conscience clearly factors into his thinking more than cynical calculation, which part of why a film like Good Trouble fails him. It would rather distort his achievements than talk about them accurately, which is a disservice to the man himself.