What does it take to be an American hero? If it means having risked your life and suffered grievous physical wounds for the principles of the Constitution, spending four decades as an elected official, and inspiring millions all over the world, then US Representative John Lewis so qualifies. Maybe no living American is more deserving of the title.
Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, participated in the first sit-ins to integrate lunch counters in the South. He was one of the original Freedom Riders, integrating interstate buses. At 23, he was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. liked to call him “the boy from Troy,” in honor of his youth and hailing from Troy, Ala. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was an architect of Freedom Summer, registering Black voters in Mississippi in 1964. He had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers on Bloody Sunday, in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965.
After those history-changing few years, 17 terms as a congressman must seem anticlimactic. What we see in Dawn Porter’s documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” indicates otherwise. Lewis campaigns, meets with constituents, gives speeches, and gets greeted so often in airports it’s a wonder he ever makes a flight.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” starts streaming July 3 via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, as well as multiple other platforms.
The title comes from some advice Lewis likes to offer: “When you see something that’s not right, not fine, say something, do something. Get in trouble: good trouble, necessary trouble.” As someone arrested 40 times during the 1960s — and five more since entering Congress, in 1987 — he practices what he preaches.
The documentary has various elements you might expect: archival news footage, old photographs, talking-head interviews. Some of the better-known interview subjects — Bill Clinton, Democratic US Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — don’t do much more than add pro forma praise. But hearing from staff members and several Lewis siblings adds a strong sense of who he is to go with what he has done.
There are surprises. Lewis and his late wife collected art. He offers a brief tour. The documentary includes a video of him dancing at an office birthday party to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” which went viral in 2014. Lewis has a naturally scowly face, so when he breaks into a smile the smile seems to have a higher quality of wattage. There’s no mention of his announcement in December that he has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. (He told New York magazine last month “my health is improving. I’m feeling good. I’m doing better.”)
It’s not a surprise that his bruising 1987 primary battle with friend and fellow civil rights hero Julian Bond gets only glancing attention. Or that just one Republican, US Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, is heard from. It would be nice to hear more people from the other side of the aisle speak to Lewis’s moral stature. But maybe their absence simply reflects how partisan politics has become.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” isn’t a great film, but it has a great subject — and excellent timing. That’s not just because of the current wave of protests against racism and social injustice. This is Fourth of July weekend. You want to celebrate America’s birthday — which is to say, honor what this country professes to stand for? There aren’t parades or fireworks or a Pops concert. So watch this documentary instead. It’s likely to make you feel proud and ashamed and inspired all at once. It’s hard to get more American than that, and on this most American of holidays.
If you do stream the movie, wait through the closing credits. What you’ll see at the very end will make you happy. The fireworks having all gone off, Lewis waves a sort-of sparkler.
JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE
Directed by Dawn Porter. Streaming on multiple platforms and via the Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room, coolidge.org/films/john-lewis-good-trouble. 97 minutes. PG (archival footage of horrific racist violence).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.