by C.J. Hirschfield
At age 79, and after 60 years of activism, John Lewis is still organizing; still mobilizing; still legislating. Oh yes, and he’s definitely still dancing.
In the illuminating and luminous new documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, acclaimed Bay Area director Dawn Porter (Trapped, Gideon’s Army) creatively and conscientiously chronicles the life and career of the legendary civil rights activist and Democratic Congressman from Georgia.
To call the film’s July 3 Virtual Cinema release timely would seem to be an understatement, given the current Black Lives Matter movement and protests.
(On July 17 Representative Lewis passed away after a seven month batle with pancratic cancer. Read this obituary from NPR.)
I spoke with Porter the day before Juneteenth, the day commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.
In a counterpoint to the current president’s plan to hold a rally the day after Juneteenth, the film’s team decided to hold its first large public screening in Tulsa on the holiday itself.
Porter says that instead of negativity and hate, the film served to illustrate peace, love and progress. “It was a very John Lewis thing to do,” she says. “Best mic drop we could have imagined,” she adds.
Covering 60 years of a very active and iconic figure presented a challenge to Porter, but she appreciated the opportunity to work with Lewis over an entire year–in partnership– unlike her process on other projects, like her mini-series on Bobby Kennedy, for example. “I was glad to make a film with him, not just about him,” she says, although she admits to having a hard time keeping up with “the Energizer Bunny.”
Born in rural Troy, Alabama to sharecropper parents, Lewis humbly refers to himself as “The boy from Troy,” and recalls how, at an early age, he started preaching to the family’s chickens. “They listened to me much better than my friends in Congress,” he says, in just one of so many sparks of humor he displays throughout the film.
Lewis attended divinity school and received a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Philosophy, and this informed his lifelong commitment to nonviolence, forgiveness, and love for his fellow human beings.
But it was the news about Rosa Parks’ 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that Lewis says inspired him to get in “good trouble,” which over 60 years has included peaceful demonstrations that brought beatings and 45 arrests.
The partnership between Lewis and Porter has resulted in a film that serves as a master class in the American civil rights movement. Lewis’ personal recollections of key events and people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are enlightening. And interviews with President Obama, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Senator Corey Booker and Congress member Alexandria Ocasio–Cortez put Lewis’ contributions into critical contexts.
How to most effectively and creatively integrate archival footage into a documentary is a challenge, and Porter came up with a most unique—and effective—technique. It came to her as she observed Lewis at a museum, where he was watching an exhibit featuring a film about himself. He turned to a teen standing next to him and said “I can hardly believe that’s me!” Porter thought that Lewis might be inspired to go to “that deeper place” if he could watch footage—some of which he’s never seen—to observe himself as others see him. It worked. She rented a movie theater for a day, and his comments and obvious enjoyment add a very special dimension to the film.
As does the film’s seamless score by Tamar-kali (Mudbound), featuring original music that ranges from spiritual to modern.
And speaking of music, it is a delight to see John Lewis sing and dance; he’s a human as well as an icon, and Porter wanted to show that side of him. “He’s come to that point in his career that he’s almost like a postage stamp,” she says. “I wanted to give him his personhood.” She believes that by doing that, it makes what he did more accessible.
Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” plays over the closing credits—it’s John Lewis’ favorite. I asked Porter if, given what’s going on in the world today, she ever considered a different song to end a film about a legendary civil rights leader. “Absolutely not,” she says. “It’s important to find those moments of joy.” And he does.
Lewis is now focused on the issue of voter suppression, saying that his biggest fear is that “we’ll wake up and our democracy is gone,” adding “We can’t afford to let that happen.”
John Lewis says that he believes it’s time for all the good people to get in trouble. And to keep dancing.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” opens July 3 in theaters and in Virtual Cinemas (where the theaters, filmmakers and distributors share in the “ticket” sales.).
Immediately following the feature, there will be a pre-recorded discussion between Representative Lewis and Oprah Winfrey, filmed last month and being made available exclusively for virtual cinema and in-theater engagements of the film.
Watch a Free Livestream Conversation with director Dawn Porter and journalist Otis R. Taylor Jr. on Tuesday, July 7 at 5pm PDT presented with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive.
On Thursday, July 9 Join a Free Panel Discussion presented by the Freedom Rides Museumof Montgomery, Alabama, featuring Freedom Riders Dr. Bernard Lafayette and Dr. Rip Patton in conversation with director Dawn Porter. In partnership with the Capri Theatre and moderated by Dorothy Walker. *8:00pm EST / 5:00pm PST*
Advance registration is suggested.
Visit the John Lewis: Good Trouble Official Website
Congressman John Lewis’ website
You can make “good trouble” too. Register voters, fight against voter suppression and move our country forward. Get involved here.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
Dawn Porter is a filmmaker, attorney, and founder of Trilogy Films, specializing in feature-length documentaries. Her directorial debut, Gideon’s Army, focused on public defenders working in the Deep South. The film premiered to critical and audience praise at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it won the award for Best Editing. After a successful festival run, Gideon’s Army premiered on HBO and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and an Emmy. Soon came her second film, Spies of Mississippi and Trapped were broadcast on Independent Lens to high ratings and critical acclaim. Realscreen named her one of 2012 Doc Hot Shots 15 Emerging Directors to Watch. She was awarded the San Francisco DocFest Best Director Award, and asked to give a keynote on the role of women and minorities in film at the IDA conference in the fall of 2014. Rise: The Promise of My Brother’s Keeper, is a documentary chronicling President Obama’s program to help young men and boys of color succeed. Her riveting four-part Bobby Kennedy for President debuted on Netflix. A film about Pete Souza, Barack Obama’s White House photographer, will be released by Focus Features and Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain explores Vernon Jordan’s rise from the segregated South to become one of the most influential African American thought leaders in America. In December AppleTV+ will air the six-part series on mental health that she is making with executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry Dawn is a Keppler speaker, traveling the country to address audiences on issues of judicial reform, civil rights, and indigent defense. She has is a frequent guest on television news shows.
Dawn Porter talks about film John Lewis: Good Trouble.