With the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on July 17, whose 30-plus years of service in Congress were the capstone to a literal lifetime spent fighting for civil rights, it was clear which film I would be streaming from The Rose Theatre this week.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” has an official run time of an hour and 36 minutes, but the online streaming version also features an interview with Lewis after the closing credits, conducted by Oprah Winfrey online, that bumps its total length up to an hour and 53 minutes, and offers perhaps one of the most salient insights into what drove Lewis to fight so hard.
Lewis has spoken often of the “Bloody Sunday” of March 7, 1965, when he and fellow activist Hosea Williams led more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and were assaulted by Alabama State Troopers for their trouble.
To her credit as an interviewer, Winfrey asks Lewis to describe what he was thinking and feeling, in the moment when he admitted that he expected to die, and Lewis demonstrates his stoic character by recounting, as he has so often before, how all fear left him, but it felt a bit emotionally distant.
When Lewis finally displays his emotion is when Winfrey asks him what we should be doing now, and he exhorts Americans to vote, his voice quavering and tears forming at the corners of his eyes as he points out that his own parents were unable to vote.
His loss of fear gave Lewis the freedom to act on behalf of what he knew to be right, but his grief over the opportunities denied to previous generations of Black Americans was what drove him, and even after the skull fracture that he sustained during that “Bloody Sunday” march, it was his grievance over the rights denied to others that made him cry.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” is not a perfect documentary, since the intended thematic line of its non-chronological outline of Lewis’ deeds is a bit unclear at the film’s outset, and its priorities felt slightly misplaced to me, in how much attention it focused on the 2018 midterm elections.
That being said, this is absolutely an essential film, not only for conveying something approaching the full scope of Lewis’ legendary achievements on behalf of civil rights, but also for the uncommon amount of archival footage it offers of Lewis decades ago, to the point that the image of John Lewis as a lean young man with a full head of hair and a cocky, defiant smirk in his arrest photo now lives as vividly inside my mind as the bald, solemn-faced older gentleman who left us this past weekend.
The poverty of Lewis’ rural, disenfranchised childhood in the South is touched upon, but not delved into in any real detail, because the documentarians recognize that the true heart of Lewis as a person is his political activism, which we see in footage of him from the Freedom Rides, the nonviolence workshops he took part in as a student to prepare for the Nashville sit-in movement, and the March on Washington of Aug. 28, 1963, on up to him campaigning for the latest candidates for elected office.
It makes sense that Lewis would have to die in office, because after watching “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” I can’t imagine he would have ever consented to retirement.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” is currently streaming online at The Rose Theatre at RoseTheatre.com.