Credit: © Alabama Department of Archies and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Tom Lankford, Birmingham News. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Activism, Voting Rights, And 'Good Trouble': New Film Highlights Legacy Of Congressman John Lewis
John Lewis has gotten into a lot of trouble in his life. The now 17-term House Representative from Atlanta has been arrested 45 times – five as a U.S. congressman.
One of the original Freedom Riders, Lewis trained in nonviolent resistance, but faced a lot of brutality during his time as a young activist in the civil rights movement. He suffered harassment and attacks during lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, his skull was fractured by a blow from a Klansman in 1961, and he was badly beaten after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday.
While those historic battles for civil rights took place decades ago, the fight for racial justice is erupting on the streets with a new urgency and, as a new film about the legendary activist and congressman shows, the 80-year-old John Lewis is not backing down.
The new documentary from Magnolia Pictures is called John Lewis: Good Trouble. It goes beyond the highlights reel of his storied life and reveals more personal elements of the man and the figure. Director and producer Dawn Porter and producer Erika Alexander joined On Second Thought to share how the film connects his legacy of seeking justice from his youth to his role as a revered congressman today.
"I think that this is in his DNA – being an activist," Porter said. "He didn’t go into the movement thinking that he would become its leader. He went to the movement doing what he could, and I think that's a great reminder for each of us."
John Lewis: Good Trouble is largely biographical, spanning from Lewis' childhood growing up in Troy, Alabama to his current work as a congressman. The documentary features interviews with family, colleagues, civil rights contemporaries, and Congressman Lewis himself.
Alongside Lewis' story, the film places a particular focus on the issue of voting rights – historically and today. That's because, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court's Shelby County vs. Holder decision gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act, freeing states to change election laws without advance federal approval.
Since then, various states have seen large purges from voter rolls, changes to election procedures, closed or consolidated polling places and, in some districts, long wait times for voters casting their ballots – prompting accusations of voter suppression. The movie draws out parallels between these events and voter suppression efforts in the 1960s.
"I think that it is probably even more urgent now to understand the congressman's life and work, but also to understand the roots of the causes of the behavior that seeks to disenfranchise or discriminate," Porter explained. "Understanding that those sentiments are still quite active and can lead to harm is important."
And despite the major events dominating the headlines in 2020 – from the global COVID-19 pandemic to the widespread protests sparked by the death of George Floyd – it is also an election year. Both Porter and Alexander point out that one of the key messages of their film, and Congressman Lewis' lifetime of work, is that voting is a crucial element of enacting change.
"Here we are protesting – and that's fantastic, and it's led to a lot of discussions that people are having and things that people are looking at for the first time in their life in a real way," Alexander said. "But the vote is real. The vote is real. You really want to change it? You have got to change the people that represent it; otherwise, we'll be back here."
Porter and Alexander will participate in a discussion about the congressman's life and legacy as part of an Atlanta Press Club "Newsmaker Event." The online webinar, which will be hosted by CBS46's Karyn Greer, is open to the public and will take place on Tuesday, July 14 at 2 p.m.
On the significance of telling stories about Congressman Lewis' life growing up in Troy, Alabama
Porter: I think that when you're there with him in Alabama, the land that he refers to so often, you have a sense that Congressman Lewis has something that many of us value, which is he has such a strong family and he is so grounded in the strength of his family. His family was really always there for him, although I think that they were terrified. It's important to remember: John Lewis grew up as a young black man in the time of Emmett Till. The dangers were not esoteric. They were not imagined. They were quite real. And so when his mother said, "Don't get in the way, don't get in trouble," she really meant stay alive. And so he made a conscious choice that he didn't want to live the way that was foretold for him. He wanted to carve out a different life, not just for himself, but for other black people.
On the decision to film Congressman Lewis reacting to archival footage
Porter: We were filming with the congressman; he leads a "pilgrimage," he calls it, back to Alabama each year, where he takes a congressional delegation and other visitors and guests. Part of that pilgrimage was a trip to Bryan Stevenson's remarkable civil rights museum in Alabama and, while we were there, I watched the congressman watching an exhibit about himself. While he did that, he kept saying, "I can't believe that's me." And so I had the idea to then create all of these short little films, just of archive, and put them together and show him. So we rented a theater, we constructed very large screens.
Part of your job as a director is figuring out what is the environment that my subject needs in order to go back in time and give me the detail about these important times. With the congressman, I wanted him to tell us stories that we hadn't heard before. There's a moment in the film where he says he's seeing footage that he'd never seen before, and I think he's certainly speaking about particular moments, but I also think he's talking about the totality of it. I think that seeing all of these iconic moments from Selma Bridge to Freedom Rides to speaking at the March on Washington to being there when President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act – I mean, he was there when that act was signed – and seeing your life laid out before you that way...
When I showed him the film this past February, he kept saying, "It's so powerful, it's so powerful," as if he's still removed from it a bit. And I said, "Congressman, your life is powerful. Yes, your life is powerful."
On the multitude of interviews in the film about John Lewis – as a public figure and as a man
Alexander: I think it's really amazing how many participants and friends and colleagues that know him best came out to speak and bear witness about this man. And [Porter] says it a lot, but what you see is what you get. He's a good man and he does good for goodness' sake. He certainly has a great and strong conviction and he's determined.
And I love one of the most beautiful lines: Representative Clyburn said, "He's one of the bravest people I've ever met." Now, that's a heavy thing from a brother like that, because we'd all think that they're all pretty brave. And so there they are and they're talking about this man, this quiet, calm man who's a pillar. And they depend on that. And they can because he's proved his mettle over time.
On deciding who to interview for the documentary
Porter: I think we're at a political moment where there is quite a bit of debate about what is the right path forward and how "activist" do we have to be. When John Lewis speaks to, you know, Representative Ocasio-Cortez, he speaks with the knowledge and the history of someone who was once the activist outsider. So I think his words had a different resonance for "the Squad." I think he identifies with them in many ways, but I think he also wants them to be successful as legislators. They're no longer the outsiders and so they have to work for change from within. So that was the scope of their conversations. But then also, as [Alexander] mentioned, I felt like it was really important to hear from some of his contemporaries. These are people who marched with him, who fought alongside of him. And it did give us a chill to hear Representative Clyburn, who was the Majority Whip, say this is the bravest person he knows – to also say he was never as nonviolent as Congressman Lewis, and to recognize and appreciate what nonviolence contributed to a movement for change.
On Lewis' speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Porter: Imagine being in your 20s. You're about to address the largest audience ever on the steps of the Washington Monument. President Kennedy was incredibly nervous about this speech; he initially opposed it. There was a lot of anxiety, and so the kind of deans of the civil rights movement, the leaders of the NAACP, reviewed Lewis's remarks really carefully and they asked him to remove this line about marching like Sherman into the streets.
But when you see his actual speech, it's just as powerful. So I think he made a very quick decision that dying on the cross of speaking that line was not in the best interests of what he wanted to accomplish. And so he did capitulate. He was criticized on the left for capitulating and taking out the line. But in the end, I think when you see the actual speech, I always get shivers when I hear him warn people: if you do not listen to us now, you will listen to us when we march and when we come. And that was not a violent threat. And that's what's so ironic about the controversy, is John Lewis was always quite clear that he was speaking about nonviolent protest. And yet those words were deemed as really inflammatory.
On how John Lewis has fought for the causes he believes in
Alexander: I think that if we're all thinking about a relay race, this is our leg of it. I love that he was considered a radical in his time, because people like to make them out as if they're terrorists or if they're not patriotic or they are destructive. Systems need to be destroyed so new ones can be erected. And the fact that he knows that if you keep stopping people from voting, you'll never be able to change anything. Good, bad, or ugly, people should have their say. He's there to defend it. And he understands that it's a cornerstone and proof of life to a strong democracy.
So he's shown that he has skin in the game. He was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He's bled. He's cried. He's done all those things. And imagine all those people who were assassinated around him. He understands that it's not just the fact that you might lose a reputation or have or gain one; it's that you might lose your life. And he accepts it as part of what he owes to the beloved community that he talks about.
On his reaction to modern injustices in the 2018 Midterm Elections
Porter: I think it shows you can't be complacent. It was quite demoralizing to see some of the same tactics used to suppress voter turnout and voters actually exercising the franchise. During the making of the film, I would get dispirited. I would say, "Mr. Lewis, this happened or that happened." And it was so interesting: here is the man who was present, who owns a pen given to him by Lyndon Johnson on the signing of the Voting Rights Act, and he was not depressed. He was angry. He was motivated. He was energized. But he kept making the point that we have to be vigilant and active and forward-looking about our rights. So I think what he was pointing out is a wake-up call. I think that there were so many activities that happened under the cover of secrecy that led to disenfranchisement of so many people, and that is our challenge going forward. We have been warned about the dangers to our democracy and we ignore those warnings at our own peril.
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