John Lewis with fellow protestors at Edmund Pettus Bridge, in “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a Magnolia Pictures release. © Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Tom Lankford, Birmingham News/courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis had lots of mugshots. 

The longtime United States congressman, a civil rights legend who died Friday at age 80, is the subject of the simultaneously inspirational and sobering documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” Lewis is seen in the new film explaining that he was arrested some 40 times during the 1960s, plus five more times while in Congress.

I have a favorite arrest story. It’s from 1961. That’s when the 21-year-old Lewis was arrested for using a “white” restroom while participating in that summer’s Freedom Rides. The young and dapper Lewis is staring down the camera, and the white police officer taking the picture, one side of his mouth lifted in a knowing smile, his eyes alive with the knowledge not only that he was on the right side of history, but that the policeman behind the camera was on the wrong one. The film, streaming through the Portland Museum of Art’s PMA Films as part of its “social distancing video store,” takes its title from Lewis’ oft-quoted motto since he met Dr. Martin Luther King at the age of 15, “My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, that is not fair, that is not just, say something, do something, get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” comes along at a time when the number of Americans choosing good trouble over bad safety is as big or bigger than it was when Lewis was young. The film – admittedly a boilerplate mix of talking heads, archival footage, and recent rumination by Lewis on the pivotal events where he was front and center – isn’t groundbreaking in form. (The late inclusion of some Stevie Wonder over a montage of Lewis’ legislative achievements could have come a lot sooner.) But both immediate political need and Lewis’ commanding presence lend “John Lewis: Good Trouble” a vitality that flagging, quarantined spirits everywhere could use right now. 

Congressman John Lewis was an activist for seven decades. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

On the political front, the film makes no bones about the fact that the current Republican Party in America is working very hard to undo the specific gains that Lewis helped achieve when it comes to voting rights. We see Lewis lamenting the 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, who, according to Lewis, did away with the protections against racially motivated voter suppression with the blithe position that “history cannot repeat itself.” The film jumps to the 2018 midterm elections where – shocker – Republican lawmakers across the country made very sure that America’s history of disenfranchising primarily minority voters came back. We see Lewis’ election night joy at his Democrats taking back the House of Representatives, mixed with the anger and disappointment at watching Georgia’s Stacey Abrams narrowly lose the state’s gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp who – again, prepare to be shocked – used every old school, racist means possible (long lines, broken machines, closed minority-area polling places, arbitrary voter purges) when he was secretary of state there. 

It’s enough to make you start thinking about getting into some trouble, something taken to heart by the long list of activists who followed Lewis’ path to elected office. (Look for rising political stars Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Presley, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Abrams, Corey Booker, and others to explain how working for justice alongside Lewis was a daily inspiration.) What the film also has powering it, however, is simply Lewis’ life. Footage of him being beaten for sitting down at segregated lunch counters, for marching for voting rights, for riding a bus – they all resonate that much more at the sight of the elderly but energetic Lewis wheeling his bags through airports on his way to support Democratic candidates, pressing the (prepandemic) flesh of adoring crowds, while the afterimages of sneering, racist white crowds aiming punches and kicks still linger. 

For those (white) viewers who think they’ve seen enough old civil rights footage, you haven’t. Look at the white, leering faces then, whether throwing punches, wielding police batons or telling Black Americans to be patient about being treated as equal citizens. Look at the faces on Twitter feeds, and newscasts, and cellphone footage now. Explain what’s changed. I’ll wait. 

John Lewis didn’t. Over footage of him leading a sit-in against gun violence on the House floor in 2016, Lewis explained matter-of-factly, “You only pass this way once. We have to give it all we have.” 

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” is streaming on the PMA Films site now. It costs $12, with half of the proceeds going to keep PMA Films afloat during the pandemic shutdown. For the inspiration, the refocusing and the local business support, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to rent it there. 


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