There is a moment in John Lewis: Good Trouble, a new documentary about Georgia’s most famous congressman, that captures the uncertainty and anxiety of the early days of the civil rights movement. A young Lewis is sitting on the banks of a peaceful lake with two fellow members of the Nashville Student Movement, which organized sit-ins throughout that city to protest segregated lunch counters. The year is 1960. The decade ahead of these young men—boys, really—will be marked with beatings, bombings, assassinations. Their parents are worried for their children. Bernard Lafayette, one of Lewis’s compatriots, reads a letter from his mother.
“What are you fighting for?” Lafayette’s mother writes. “Remember who are helping you. It is the white people. What about the people of your race? What have they given you?”
Lafayette clutches his forehead in frustration. “I know she cares for me. I know she loves me. But she just don’t understand.”
Where do fighters such as these come from? Good Trouble, which is scheduled to premiere in Atlanta theaters and through digital platforms on July 3 (it was postponed from May due to the COVID-19 pandemic), is ostensibly a documentary about Lewis—who had his skull cracked in 1965 by Alabama police on the Edmund Pettus bridge, who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, who has been arrested more than 40 times in acts of civil disobedience, who has been a champion for justice in almost every major moral battle this country has fought in the past six decades, in addition to serving in Congress since 1987. But because it explores Lewis’s life, it is also, by necessity, a contemplation of heroism and sacrifice, by people like him who came from the humblest of origins.
Lewis was an Alabama sharecropper’s son, but as his siblings explain in Good Trouble, there was something about John that was just . . . different. “I could tell that he felt the world was bigger than what we were doing,” one of Lewis’s brothers says in the film. “He had bigger things in mind.” Lewis would practice sermons to the chickens on his parents’ farm in Troy, but he hated picking cotton. He took a teacher’s advice to read everything, he wore a tie to school, and he always kept his Bible at hand. At 17, he wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a letter. King replied to “the boy from Troy” with a bus ticket to join him in Montgomery, a journey that would change not just Lewis’s life but the course of history.
“He didn’t want future generations to be subject to so much humiliation and suffering,” says Dawn Porter, the director of Good Trouble. “He was determined to change things.”
Off and on beginning in 2018, Porter spent months with Lewis, filming him at his Atlanta home, on the hustings as he stumped for congressional candidates across the country before the 2018 midterms, in the halls of the U.S. Capitol building, and for a trip back to his hometown of Troy. For Porter, who first interviewed Lewis for a documentary on Bobby Kennedy, a film devoted solely to Lewis made perfect sense.
“People know about his activities on the Selma bridge,” Porter says, “but I wanted to show that these marches didn’t just spontaneously happen. The civil rights movement was years of very tedious marches and planning and kids who gave up years of their lives to do this work. Young people like Lewis—he was the radical.”
Good Trouble is also remarkable for the depth of the archival footage that producers unearthed. For instance, the clips of Lafayette and Lewis on the banks of the lake were from NBC, which, like other networks at the time, sent independent filmmakers to the South to document the nascent civil rights movement. And so, for example, we are able to see the training that protesters underwent to gird them for the verbal—and physical—abuse they would suffer as they sought to integrate the lunch counters of Nashville.
Lewis is 80. Late last year, he announced he has stage-four pancreatic cancer. For any patient with such a diagnosis, the prognosis is grim. On Valentine’s Day, Porter visited Lewis at his home, and he greeted her as he always did: button-down shirt, pressed slacks. He offered her tea. In a few weeks would be the 55th anniversary of the Selma march that had left Lewis bleeding but also had led to the Voting Rights Act. Would the congressman be making the trip to Selma, sick as he was? “He was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go.’ And he did.”
Says Porter: “Sometimes you’re a little afraid to meet people that you consider heroes. They might disappoint you in person. He exceeded my expectations. It was literally nothing but joyful to be around that man.”
This article appears in our May 2020 issue. It was updated from print to reflect the new release date.