CNN Films’ “John Lewis: Good Trouble” airs Sunday, September 27 at 9 p.m. ET. Follow Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green on Twitter to join a virtual watch party.
You might think that, given the title, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” is a biopic about the 80-year-old US representative and civil rights icon. But it’s not really about him.
Rather, stitching together archival clips and recent interviews, Dawn Porter’s poignant new CNN Films documentary uses the Georgia Democrat’s life story to foreground the tremendous work of his cohort of mid-century activists – and to illustrate how that legacy is in danger today.
“We are still in the civil rights movement because we are still in the civil rights struggle,” Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley says in the movie. “Congressman Lewis gave us the blueprint. And the blueprint is to organize, it is to mobilize, and it is to legislate.”
Lewis’ approach to politics is guided by his belief in good, necessary trouble – that is, by a willingness to confront the world’s many injustices, regardless of the consequences. (Lewis recalls that he was arrested 40 times in the 1960s, and has been arrested another five times since he’s been in Congress.)
“I tell friends and family, colleagues and especially young people that when you see something that’s not right or fair, you have to do something, you have to speak up, you have to get in the way,” as Lewis put it in 2018.
The most famous example of how Lewis and his peers, including Hosea Williams, got in the way: when they organized the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The first march, which took place on March 7 and became known as “Bloody Sunday,” went off without a hitch until the 600-some protesters reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, where White state troopers viciously attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas.
Lewis’ skull was fractured: “I thought I was going to die on that bridge,” he says in the film.
The marches were part of a movement that helped to secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a watershed piece of federal legislation that protects against racial discrimination in voting. But as “Good Trouble” makes plain, in the more than half a century since those key moments in Alabama, access to the ballot has been compromised anew.
In 2013, the Supreme Court defanged the Voting Rights Act by freeing states with histories of disenfranchisement from having to gain federal approval, or “preclearance,” before changing their election laws. In a 5-4 opinion that split ideologically, Chief Justice John Roberts characterized this crucial part of the Voting Rights Act as outdated: “Racial disparity in (voter registration and turnout numbers in the covered states) was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.”
(In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, archly, that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”)
The movie also underscores just how real the threat to voting rights is via revisiting the 2018 midterm elections.
The contests certainly had their Democratic bright spots. For instance, an unprecedented number of LGBTQ candidates won their bids in what observers dubbed the “rainbow wave.” But the gubernatorial race in Georgia cooled some of the jubilation.
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After initially refusing to concede, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams lost by a paper-thin margin to her Republican rival Brian Kemp, who oversaw elections in a state while running to be that state’s governor. The race was dogged by reports of the same kind of political evil – voter suppression that disproportionately affected Black Americans – that Lewis and his contemporaries fought against.
Likewise, as the country gears up for the general election, unease is growing over a potential voting calamity. Between the barriers that already existed before the coronavirus pandemic – gerrymandering, chaotic polling places, voter ID laws – and the possibility of exploiting Covid-19 for political gain, November could be disastrous.
“Voter suppression is no longer billy clubs & Jim Crow. It’s closed polling sites + 6 hr waits w/o pay. COVID is no excuse,” Abrams tweeted in June. “Who needs to vote in person? The disabled. The homeless or displaced. Voters w/language barriers. Folks who didn’t get their ballots in time. Americans.”
This isn’t to suggest that “Good Trouble” is all gloom and doom. One of the rich, heartwarming biographical details it includes is the story of how, when he was a little boy in Troy, Alabama, Lewis wanted to become a minister; he practiced by sermonizing to the chickens on the family farm.
In addition, the film points out how profoundly Lewis and his peers have influenced some of the Democratic Party’s rising stars.
“The radicalism of the civil rights movement – the social radicalism, the civic radicalism – all of that inspires a lot of the conclusions and beliefs that I have today,” says New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat.
Above all, however, “Good Trouble” is a clear-sighted history lesson, a communion between the past and the present. “We will create the beloved community,” Lewis says, resolutely, in the final shot. “We will get there. I still believe we shall overcome.” His words are a plea to finish the job that he and so many others started.