John Lewis: Good Trouble (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Congressman John Lewis

Director: Dawn Porter

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG for Reminders of Real-Life Prejudice

Release Date: July 3, 2020 (Theaters and On Demand)

If you want to demonstrate how the American civil rights movement that reached its apotheosis in the 1960s continues to this day, you could do much worse than making a documentary about John Lewis. This man marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, and he’s gone on to represent Georgia in Congress for over 30 years. Over the course of his life, he’s been present for important change that has already happened, and he continues to fight for important change that still needs to happen. Just showing footage of where he’s been and where he’s headed ought to be galvanizing, especially in a time of a great national reckoning with race. But John Lewis: Good Trouble never fully captures the fighting spirit of its subject.

The trouble with Good Trouble, particularly for any viewers who are generally tuned into the trends of cinema and current events, is that the topics it touches upon are covered more thoroughly in other recent documentaries. If you want a historical outline of what has led to so much of America’s racial prejudice, check out Ava DuVernary’s 13th. Or if  you want to be on top of voter suppression, Slay the Dragon is essential viewing. Good Trouble, on the other hand, works mostly as a reminder that these problems exist. It’s nice to know that Lewis is still around in these battles, kicking up the sort of stir that the title refers to, but the inspiration can go only so far if you already knew that about him.

There is one interesting episode that covers the 1986 Congressional election. In the Democratic primary, Lewis squared off against Julian Bond, a close friend and fellow African-American activist. It was a bitterly fought contest in which Lewis implied that Bond used cocaine and emerged victorious thanks to his strong performance among white voters. The strain among these two clear allies must have been significant and surely dramatic enough to devote more than the few minutes that Good Trouble allows it. The fact that the film so quickly switches back to focusing on Lewis’ accomplishments doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s meant to cover up any faults so much as it comes off as cinematic carelessness. Even the most righteous among us have complicated stories; Good Trouble struggles to make that clear.

John Lewis: Good Trouble is Recommended If You Like: Biographical inspiration, but don’t mind some repetition

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Marches