Documentary Review: Activist Congressman John Lewis preaches the righteousness of “Good Trouble”

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Grown men and women weep upon meeting him. His aids good-naturedly grump about what it’s like to try to get the man to a plane on time.  Because a walk through an airport might involve 200 stops, requests to shake his hand, pauses for selfies.

Congressman John Lewis is one of the most recognizable, most celebrated members of of the House, a Democratic icon and an aging lion of America’s Civil Rights movement.

Even those who demonize him fear him for all the right reasons. Because when the cause is righteous and the need arises, John Lewis knows how to get into “good trouble.”

For the film, “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” director Dawn Porter and CNN put their home town (Atlanta) 80 year-old Congressman in a chair in front a large video screen, and in “This is Your Life” fashion, take him through the trials and triumphs of his life, getting his reactions and interviewing colleagues, friends and peers for theirs.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley recalls seeing the then-76 year-old Lewis lead a sit-in for gun control legislation (in 2016) in the U.S. House of Representatives, inspired to run for office herself “because that’s just what I would’ve done.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez marvels as “the radicalism” of Lewis and the Civil Rights Movement, ordinary people who rallied, marched and protested until Jim Crow laws were stricken from the books and voting rights were restored in the then-segregated South.

Lewis shakes his head at the Republican assault on voting rights, renewed through a right wing Supreme Court enabling states to close polling places, strike voters from the rolls and fix elections in those same states where people like Lewis literally bled to win those rights in the first place.

“One day we may wake up and find our democracy gone,” he sighs. So, at 80, he’s taken up the cause all over again. If you’re not impressed by a man who counts his arrests — acquired during protests — in the many dozens, perhaps you’re idolizing the wrong leaders.

We hear about his being inspired to join Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s budding Civil Rights crusade — at 15 — see him march in Selma, and hospitalized after state troopers rioted and attacked the marchers.

“I thought I was going to die on that (Edmund Pettus) Bridge,” he recalls, remembering the “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.

It’s an adoring portrait, covering Lewis’s early life (he started wearing a tie in elementary school, and has never stopped) and the breadth of his career, letting him tell the folksy story of “the boy from Troy, Alabama” to crowds of fans and peers.

But being “adoring” means it flirts with crossing over into hagiography. Accounts of how “dirty” his first campaign for Congress, beating hometown favorite, friend and fellow Civil Rights icon Julian Bond, ending Bond’s career is the rare hint of negative coverage here. Several members of the Congressman’s staff are interviewed or otherwise given screen time, hinting at the filmmaker not casting her net nearly as wide as she might have.

And the lone voice from “across the aisle” heard from is retiring GOP Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin, complimenting Lewis’s efforts to keep the Voting Rights Act alive in the face of GOP assaults on it after the rise of the “Tea Party” wing in that party.

But if Atlanta-based CNN can’t do a bang-up job of documenting the life and career of one of Atlanta’s own, they’d have to hang their heads in shame. Director Porter  — she did the “Bobby Kennedy for President” mini-series — manages that, and more.

Michael Moore might plead for people willing to “put our lives on the line” to save American democracy. Here’s a portrait of someone who actually has, and who continues to do so.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: PG, scenes of violence

Cast:John Lewis, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , Cory Booker, Elijah Cummings, Hillary Clinton, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar

Credits: Directed by Dawn Porter. A CNN Films/Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:36

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