A searing and powerful new documentary tracing the life of Congressman John Lewis was supposed to be released in May, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced filmmakers to shift plans.
Under normal circumstances, that could be considered unfortunate timing.
But with the nation — and Atlanta — embroiled in widespread civil unrest and protests against racial violence and police brutality, the upcoming July release of “John Lewis: Good Trouble” could hardly come at a more important time.
“My greatest fear is that one day we might wake up and our democracy is gone,” Lewis says early in the film. “We can’t afford to let that happen. As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can.”
And so begins the 96-minute documentary on the iconic civil rights activist turned congressman whose first real audience was a flock of chickens that he would preach to on his family’s Troy, Alabama, farm.
Dawn Porter, the director, had planned to debut the documentary for Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media at the Tribeca Film Festival, before hitting theaters this summer.
But the coronavirus, which has killed more than 110,000 Americans, canceled Tribeca, and the releases of dozens of movies have either been delayed or pushed to streaming services.
Porter said the film is now set to open in select theaters and On Demand on July 3, before landing on CNN in September, as part of the news channel’s prime-time documentary series.
Following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Rayshard Brooks in Georgia, each at the hands of the police, or in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, white neighborhood vigilantes in Brunswick, protests and in some cases violence, rioting and looting have put American cities on edge.
Because she stopped filming in 2019, the documentary doesn’t touch on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the recent surge of national protests in response to the killings of unarmed Black people by police.
But in a way, the filmmakers say the absence of those events from the documentary makes Lewis’ voice, which has been slowed by a stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in December, much more powerful.
“This makes the film even more impactful,” producer Erika Alexander told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Alexander, who has emerged as a political and voting rights activist, is branching out into producing with her company Color Farm, after an acting career that included her star-turning role as Maxine Shaw on “Living Single.”
“This moment in time is still heavy — it’s the most sustained and intense protests since John Lewis marched in the 1960s,” she said. “’Good Trouble’ is all about voting rights, leadership and equality.”
“Congressman Lewis supports the rights of the protesters and feels strongly that it is not just our right but our obligation to make our voices heard,” Porter said at a screening of the movie for Lewis’ fraternity brothers. “I know that it warms his heart and soothed his soul to know that so many people are standing up and speaking up for what they know is right. This is evidence that all that he sacrificed continues to mean something. That is the definition of Good Trouble.”
On June 7, Lewis made an unannounced visit to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., in front of the White House after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned a 2-block-long mural.
“When you lose the sense of fear,” Lewis says in the film, “you are free.”
Porter’s film starts quietly, with a quiet John Lewis sitting on a stool. His chief of staff Michael Collins steps in to fix his tie.
Finally, Lewis speaks to no one and everyone.
“I feel lucky and blessed that I am serving in the Congress,” he says. “But there are forces today trying to take us back to another time and another dark period.”
The film painstakingly goes back to those dark periods, uncovering footage — particularly of his time as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — that Lewis says on camera that he had never seen before.
They range from Lewis’ formal introduction to civil rights as a college student in Tennessee being trained in nonviolence, to applying those principles in early sit-ins and as one of the first Freedom Riders, which marked the first time that he was savagely beaten.
Other beatings would follow, like on Bloody Sunday, when Alabama state troopers attacked him and other marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In looking at a clip, Lewis notes that while his hands were in his pockets, how his partner Hosea Lewis was holding his nose, “because he knew they were gonna gas us.”
“As I was hit in the head, my knees went from under me,” Lewis said. “I thought I was gonna die on the bridge.”
And arrests, dozens of arrests.
Throughout the documentary, luminaries like former President Bill Clinton; former Sen. Hillary Clinton; former Attorney General Eric Holder; Reps. James Clyburn, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Sen. Cory Booker; and Xernona Clayton — who tells the poignant story of how she introduced Lewis to his late wife Lillian — show up.
Porter met John Lewis while she was working on a Robert F. Kennedy documentary and began chronicling the congressman in 2018.
“He was just dynamite, and I got the idea that there were so many stories to tell. Surprisingly, not that many films have been made that cover his full life, so he was open to it,” Porter said. “I followed him for a year during this crazy Trump presidency. The idea is he is still here. Not a postage stamp. Not a person from history.”
The year 2018 was pivotal because that is when Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives. Porter found Lewis at campaign stops for Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke and sat with him as he watched returns coming in on election night — devastated by the celebrated losses, but literally jumping for joy at the overall results.
“That is why I wanted to make this film. I wanted to have us remember this powerful man was once a 19-year-old with a vision. He executed that vision and he has been able to stay true to that vision,” Porter said. “One of my goals was to show that while John Lewis is known for being brave, the bridge and going on the Freedom Rides, he was also, and is, very strategic. Everything he did had a strategic purpose.”
Porter glossed over Lewis’ five years on the Atlanta City Council in the early 1980s. But nowhere was Lewis’ use of strategy more evident and devastating than in his 1986 bid for Congress against the favorite Julian Bond.
Porter sets up the race, by showing clips of the friends traveling together through the South in the 1970s to register poor Black voters. That friendship was thrown out the window on the campaign trail when Lewis challenged Bond, who was fighting allegations that he was a habitual cocaine user, to take a drug test.
Bond said it was a ploy to appease and scare white voters. Lewis was elected to Congress by 2,000 votes.
But the documentary also shows a lighter side of Lewis, like when he shows off his art collection, feeds his cats, apologizes for his messy D.C. apartment, or creates a viral moment by dancing to “Happy.”
Or when he catches the spirit in church and talks to a group of sisters about picking cotton in Texas. He teases Collins, a Boston native, about not knowing anything about cotton.
He also teases Collins, who tells an emotional story about Lewis attending his father’s funeral on the same day that he voted for an important voting rights bill, about getting sprinkled with baptism water, while Lewis was dipped in a creek.
“He looks for peaceful activities in his life to get enjoyment,” Porter said. “He is the quietest person I know. He is a little bit of an introvert.”
Porter said she had stopped filming long before Lewis’ announcement that he had cancer. She said she met him in his Washington apartment in February to show him the film, which she said he liked.
“I wanted to do it while he could enjoy it. I really wanted it to happen for him,” Porter said. “When I went to his house, he answered the door all dressed up and asked if I wanted some tea. We had the loveliest afternoon. He cried while watching it and we sat and talked about nothing and everything.”
Lewis said earlier this month that he was “humbled and honored” by the film.
“I only tried to help,” Lewis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When I saw something that was wrong and unjust, I only wanted to say something and do something.”
The film ends with Lewis in his office holding an official 2008 Barack Obama inauguration book. He tells the story of how at the inauguration, Barack Obama signed a program for him reading: “It’s because of you, John. Barack Obama.”
Then, at the 2012 inauguration, Lewis recalled how Obama, who had already given him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, whispered to him: “It is still because of you.”
“We will create the beloved community. We will redeem the soul of America. There will be some setbacks, some delays, but as a nation, as a people, we will get there. And I still believe, we shall overcome.”
After the credits roll, Lewis makes one final cameo.
He is dancing to “Happy.”
“I want people to know that there are and there always will be people who go into government for the right reasons,” Porter said. “Sometimes, the word ‘hero’ applies. That is true in the case of John Lewis. Everything you know about him is deserved. He is kind, funny and most importantly, he is hopeful.”
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