From the time he first risked death trying to desegregate Nashville lunch counters and register blacks in the South to vote, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was never one to parse his words.
“I feel lucky and blessed that I’m serving in the Congress,” Lewis says, sitting in a studio at the beginning of the new documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” “But there are forces today trying to take us back to another time, and another dark period. We’ve come so far and made so much progress, but as a nation and as a people, we’re not quite there yet.”
Lewis, diagnosed in December with pancreatic cancer, died last Friday night at age 80. Director Dawn Porter’s documentary can be viewed via the website of the Museum of the Moving Image. Half the $12 charge goes to the museum if viewers use the link on movingimage.us. The screenings have been available for seveal weeks and will remain so indefinitely.
The cameras follow Lewis on the campaign trail as he stumps for Democrats across the country in 2018 and goes back to the farm his family still owns in Troy, Ala., where his siblings recall he was never content to work when school was in session or when as a teenager he went to visit the Rev. Martin Luther King after sending him a letter.
“He always called me ‘the boy from Troy,’” Lewis says.
His mother always pleaded with him to stay out of trouble; he was 15 when the actions of Rosa Parks and the words of King “inspired me to get into trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
The film includes interviews with his colleagues in the civil rights movement and Congress; and even office staffers — and yes, even a revered civil rights icon still kept business hours in his district office in Atlanta to discuss constituents’ problems and interests when he was not in Washington.
Hopping back and forth between past and present, viewers see Lewis and others filmed as they train to respond with nonviolence for what they were certain to face at the lunch counter sit-in; a mug shot of a young man from an Alabama police station; that same young man speaking with reporters as fresh blood has splattered on his shirt, tie and jacket — and a man who is beaten and trampled before television cameras at the head of a line of marchers who stand silently as Alabama National Guardsmen charge the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Bloody Sunday encounter would leave Lewis hospitalized with a fractured skull.
Porter also captures private moments both funny and poignant. In his home, Lewis reflects on several pieces of art collected by him and his wife, Vivian. His rock of support, she is featured prominently throughout the film, up to news footage of a grieving Lewis at her funeral in 2012. He glances at a photo with Julian Bond, a friend and fellow leader from their Freedom Rider days — “That was so dangerous” — and the man whom he later would defeat in an ugly congressional primary in 1986.
But he also is shown as down-to-earth, feeding chickens at a recent visit to the farm; in a viral video created by a staffer synched to Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy”; and in the story of an incredible act of kindness Lewis performed for his chief of staff Michael Collins, whose father was being buried the day President George W. Bush was signing the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act into law in Washington, D.C.
“John Lewis was at my father’s funeral,” Collins said.