By Andrea Thompson
Anyone expecting an in depth look at the life of a legendary activist in the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” will be disappointed. But as is the case with anyone who’s earned the honorific of legendary, the result can’t be completely disappointing.
What “Good Trouble” could be more accurately called is a tribute to a man who has spent nearly his entire life fighting for a better America, one that actually lives up to the promises enshrined in its founding documents and ideals. Having spent his youth as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and much of his adulthood as the U.S. Representative for Georgia, it’s hard not to be in awe. Practically everyone else, from the Lewis family to the various Democratic politicians as wide-ranging as the Clintons, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib seem to be.
Why not, when so much of what he fought for seems on the verge of coming undone? Other things may be sidelined throughout “Good Trouble,” but that sense of urgency never is, which is most likely why the doc spends surprisingly little time on the past, even Lewis’s own. In between effusive praise, what emerges is a call to action, mainly to vote.
Because make no mistake, voter suppression is the evil that winds through much of “Good Trouble,” with director Dawn Porter taking pains to show just how much conservatives fear everyone being endowed with this ability, and just how quickly a bipartisan issue has become politicized on a massive scale. Sure, authorities have been trying to prevent people of color from voting for centuries, but Porter takes pains to remind us that George W. Bush not only signed the 2006 Voting Rights Act, he also came to Selma.
Cut to just seven years later in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Act u, an action which former attorney general Eric Holder calls one of the most disastrous of all time, leading to increasing obstacles between minorities and the ballot box. Lewis could never be accused of slowing down, but if there ever was a danger of that, it vanished due to Lewis’s rising fears of our democracy vanishing.
Such fears couldn’t be called unfounded, so it’s deeply understandable why everything else gets shoved to the side as Porter follows Lewis as he campaigns for other progressive candidates, meets with various activists asking him to be their advocate, and recounts his many political victories and failures. The closest “Good Trouble” comes to any kind of critical view is when it recounts the bitter political contest in 1986 when Lewis ran against his friend Julian Bond, only to quickly pivot to Lewis’s accomplishments.
Even if the result is a stirring call to action in a time when younger activists can and are taking inspiration from a beloved figure, it’s also a rather simplistic one. It’s hard (if not impossible) to resist a film that includes a reminder that Lewis’s legacy is as much about finding happiness in the darkest of times as fighting back, thus giving us what we want. It’s just that a more layered view of our heroes might be what we need.