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Trouble Man

A documentary portrait of civil rights giant John Lewis



JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE. A friend at work turned to me yesterday, unprompted, and said "Well, are you ready to become a martyr in the second American revolution?" He asked half in jest but my inability to answer immediately still troubles me.

Even as protests for racial justice and against sanctioned murder by police continue across the country, we've watched emboldened racists gather en masse. In Indiana, home of my wife's parents and their parents, bearded punks menaced a peaceful march with assault rifles. Not long after, in St. Louis, Missouri, miles from her own childhood home, a couple of bigoted opportunists who happen to be lawyers brandished their own weapons at another column of protestors — with laughable ineptitude, I might add. And even now, in Portland, Oregon, figuratively around the corner from the beds in which my niece and nephew sleep at night, federal shock troops maraud through the night, arresting and interrogating American citizens enacting their civil rights without probable cause, recourse or oversight. These agents of authoritarianism are abetted by major news outlets, where their anonymity in commission of these offenses is protected. And the head of the snake is a doddering charlatan operating in service to only his pitiful ego and the repugnant, ossified greed-worshippers who installed him. A would-be dictator who has now gone so far as to say he may or may not acknowledge or accept the results of this fall's election.

Whether there will be revolution, civil war, or some uniquely hideous, uniquely American hybrid thereof, most of us will live to see yet more troubling times; as long as we survive the plague. I have some soul-searching to do before I can honestly answer my friend's question. But it made me think of Rep. John Lewis, who died only days before, having figured out his own answer more than half a century earlier.

I would not pretend to be a student of or expert on the acts and ways of Lewis; I know more of him than about him. Which is part of the reason I sought out Dawn Porter's documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble. The movie may be more portrait than biography, offering only a few quiet moments with the man apart from his public persona, but it affirms many of the tenets of the Civil Rights movement by which he lived and legislated: refusal to ignore injustice; courage in the face of it; peaceful resistance as manifestation of that courage. I am cynical enough to think we may have passed the moment for peacefulness but Lewis' story inspires hope in its efficacy.

The child of sharecroppers, great-great grandson of a freed slave, he sought public life at an early age, preaching to the family's chickens and wearing a necktie to school, both to the amusement of his sisters. As a teenager he learned of Martin Luther King, Jr. and became a student of his speeches. He met Rosa Parks and King himself shortly thereafter, and began a lifelong mission of social justice. He was a Freedom Rider, was beaten and jailed for attempting to enter a whites-only space. He became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and had his head broken by a cop on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He manifested peace and fearlessness while confronting overwhelming violence; he risked death in service of the greater good. He worked tirelessly for widespread and equitable voter registration (an effort that continued until months before his death), worked in the Carter administration and served on the Atlanta City Council. After an initial, unsuccessful bid, Lewis ran for Congress and won; he would go on to be re-elected 16 times and died in office serving Georgia's 5th District in the House of Representatives. His voting record describes a thoughtful, conscience driven legislator consistently on the side of social justice. More vital than that, though, is his legacy of influence and inspiration. Countless current and future elected officials (many of whom appear on camera here) will quickly name him as the reason they sought positions in government. He was and will remain an extraordinary example of perseverance and bravery accomplishing good works in an increasingly divisive political culture.

While Porter's documentary cannot be called stylistically revelatory or narratively complex, I don't think it needs to be, or that we should go to it expecting that. I would, at some point, like to see a deeper history of the man, a measured meditation on his inner life. But right here, right now, I'll take this as an echo of the clarion call of a real-life folk hero. Lewis was on the front lines in the struggle for justice and equality for the majority of his lifetime. He lived through events that history has all but obscured from the public consciousness. He could see more clearly than almost any of us how bad things can be. He still went to work every day believing he could foment change. And he did. PG. 96M. STREAMING ON DEMAND.

John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.

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