Georgia congressman John Lewis’ new documentary may center on his historic contributions to the 1960s civil rights movement and Congress, but the social issues he has battled are more relevant now than ever.
Director Dawn Porter’s timely documentary, “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” premieres in select theaters and on streaming platforms Apple TV+, Amazon Prime and Google Play July 3 as worldwide anti-racism and police brutality protests sparked by the death of George Floyd march into their sixth week.
“My greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone,” Lewis, 80, says in the film.
The prominent civil rights activist has served 17 terms over33 years in Congress, attended thousands of protests and has been arrested 45 times because, as Lewis puts it, you have to “get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble … to save our country and save our democracy.”
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The documentary, completed before the social unrest of the past month, focuses on Lewis’ lifetime efforts toward enacting and protecting the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which saw key portions invalidated by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. (The ruling removed federal oversight of certain states and local jurisdictions that had a history of discrimination in voting.)
Lewis has been pivotal in the enfranchisement of Black Americans, who continue to experience voter suppression through tactics still at play today.
Last month, the primary election in Georgia was harshly criticized for malfunctioning equipment, long wait times, a limited number of polling places and paper ballot shortages, primarily in communities of color under Republican leadership. A 2018 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that Blacks and Hispanics waited 45% longer than whites to vote in the U.S.
“I took the position that whatever we do, we must do it in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion … that’s the only way we’regoing to succeed,” Lewis says in the documentary as he watches archival footage of his younger self leading a peaceful march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, a day known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“As we approached (Edmund Pettus Bridge), we saw a sea of blue: Alabama state troopers,” Lewis recalled. “I was hit in the head. My knees went from under me. I thought I was going to die on that bridge.”
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Lewis suffered a skull fracture. His testimony draws parallels to 22-year-old protester Megan Matthews, who was hit in the eye on May 29 with a rubber bullet fired by police at a protest in Denver.
“I thought my head was blown off,” said Matthews, who had a broken nose, fractured facial bones and multiple lacerations on her face.
Police departments around the country have faced criticism for the level of force used during confrontations with peaceful demonstrators, many of which have been caught on camera.
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Lewis said he was inspired at 15 by Rosa Parks and King. “The boy from Troy,” as King called Lewis, went on to become a Freedom Rider, lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize 1963’s March on Washington – all before age 23.
Although Lewis insists he’ll fight for democracy “as long as I have breath in my body,” the congressman says in the film that he has passed the baton to young people.
Today, the younger generation of Americans has effectively utilized social media to advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement like never before.
In June, Teens4Equality gained thousands of followers after its teenage organizers spearheaded one of Nashville’s largest peaceful protest against racism and police brutality, in the same city that Lewis worked to desegregate six decades earlier.
A poll by Business Insider found that 78% of Gen Zers said they’re using social media to support equality. The Pew Research Center added that 1 in 10 eligible voters in the 2020 election will be from Gen Z.
“Imagine if Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had Instagram,” Alicia Keys said during Nickelodeon’s “Kids, Race and Unity” special Monday. “It would have been a whole other power network.”
California teen started an anti-racism book club with an Instagram post. She expected 15 people. Hundreds signed up.
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In 1960, Lewis, along with the Nashville Student Movement, challenged racial segregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville through an organized sit-in movement.
“I hated the system telling people that you couldn’t be seated at a lunch counter …because of the color of your skin,” Lewis said. “I wanted to be a part of an effort to change it. I was willing to put my body on the line.”
Equipped with training from the Rev. James Lawson’s nonviolence workshops, the group helped Nashville become one of the first Southern cities to desegregate restaurants.
Porter says that despite our national upheaval, she’s optimistic viewers will find “hope in (Lewis’) story.”
“When people say nothing has changed, well, that’s not true,” Porter says, pointing to the historic involvement of all 50 states in today’s anti-racism protests, which “was not the case in the 1960s.”
Porter also referred to the increased representation of racial minorities and women in Congress, including Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, all of whom participated in the film.
Lewis, who was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in December, didn’t address his treatment in the documentary because the film was finalized before Lewis received his diagnosis, says Porter, who screened it for the congressman in his home in Washington, D.C.
“I went to his house and I was really nervous because I knew he had been diagnosed. I knew he was in treatment,” Porter told USA TODAY. “We watched (‘Good Trouble’) together (for the first time) and he kept saying, ‘It’s so powerful.’ To which I was like, ‘Your life is so powerful.’ “
Contributing: Cassandra Stephenson, The Tennessean, and USA TODAY staff
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