Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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JOHN LEWIS IN JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE

"Make trouble - good trouble": struggles more than ever relevant today

Earlier as part of the 2013 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival I reviewed Dawn Porter's understated, intense film about three young public defenders working in the South, Gideon's Army. It was a film harsh in its realities but inspiring in the idealism it depicts. The experience Porter followed in that film is a natural progression to her new one about the civil rights pioneer and longtime Georgia Congressman, John Lewis: Good Trouble. When it comes to African American living icons, they don't come any more sterling than Rep. John Lewis.

Lewis, who once wanted to become a minister and practiced preaching to the family chickens, is now the last living speaker from the March on Washington, the 1963 landmark civil rights protest that culminated with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. He was bloodied and unconscious in multiple civil rights marches. As a civil rights activist and one of the most liberal Congressmen from the Deep South he has always fought for freedom. Now since 2019, eighty and with stage IV pancreatic cancer, he has entered another battle.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution once pointed out, Lewis is the only former major civil rights leader who ever "extended his fight for human rights and racial reconciliation to the halls of Congress." The paper reported that "to those who know him, from U.S. senators to 20-something congressional aides," he is thought of as the "conscience of Congress." Lewis has not always been temperate. He impugned Bernie Sanders' civil rights record in the Sixties because he wasn't a pioneer activist in the South, to foster his support of Hilary Clinton for President. Unlike Barbara Lee, he did not vote against the invasion of Iraq initially, but he voted against authorizing use of arms against the country. But Lewis has remained one of the Deep South's most liberal Congressmen and an American hero who received the country's highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Freedom, from President Obama.

Lewis was born of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama in early 1940. This film revisits that location and his siblings. He makes the sites of his civil rights battles an annual pilgrimage and regathering of strength the film also visits. At eighteen he wrote to Martin Luther King asking for help in applying to college and King sent him a round trip bus ticket to Montgomery, where they met in March 1958, and he called him ever after "the boy from Troy."

Porter has some remarkable unseen footage of Lewis and others at the time of the first sit-ins and practice for non-violent resistance. She also traces with Lewis himself his action as a Freedom Rider seeking equality in travel by bus and all public transportation throughout the South. We get a sense of how vicious and open racism was in the sixties and what a great battle it was. "I lost all sense of fear, really," Lewis says. "When you lose our sense of fear you are free. Too many people lived in fear during those days."

Porter also follows Lewis today to show his passionate involvement in getting out the vote and supporting candidate Stacey Abrams's close loss for governor of Georgia and Beto O'Rourke's close loss to Ted Cruz for the Senate from Texas when the democrats won a sweeping return to control of Congress in the 2018 midterms.

Unfortunately as the film shows, the 1965 Voting Rights Act had a key part gutted in 2013, allowing nine mostly southern states to change voting laws without prior federal approval and Eric Holder explains that 27 states have now created arbitrary obstacles to voting.

The film notes that Lewis served as director of SNNC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), but left when Stokely Carmichael, inspired by Malcolm X, abandoned the idea of a nonviolent, multiracial movement.

This material is invaluable, but it's complex and the film's presentation sometimes makes it feel overwhelming. Occasionally it appears to be following no logical order, and occasionally it skips past a speaker or image before it's possible even to read the caption. We may feel something is missing - and maybe it is Lewis' wife of 44 years, Lilian, who passed away in 2012. After recalling her, the film goes back to Lewis' first election to congress and then provides a rapid checklist of some of the important legislation he's been involved in. Yes, this subject is complex, and its subject, despite the viral dance video and moments of humor, is a bit distant. But this material is supremely relevant today because American democracy is more seriously under under attack, it can be argued and the film points out, than at any time since Reconstruction.

(Kathleen Dowdey made a 2017 hour-long TV documentary John Lewis: Get in the Way.)

Dwwn Porter is a San Francisco filmmaker.

TRAILER

John Lewis: Good Trouble,96 mins., was included Apr. 15, 2020 in Tribeca's cancelled festival, which went partly online. Magnolia releases it Jul. 3, 2020 in theaters and on demand. Metascore 67%.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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