Review: ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble,’ starring John Lewis

July 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

John Lewis in “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“John Lewis: Good Trouble”

Directed by Dawn Porter

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” features a racially diverse (African American, white, Latino, Asian) group of people (mostly U.S. political insiders) talking about the life and career of Georgia U.S. Representative John Lewis, including Lewis himself.

Culture Clash: Most of the documentary is about Lewis’ ongoing fight for civil rights and social justice.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people with politically liberal views, since Lewis’ conservative opponents and critics are not included in the documentary’s interviews.

John Lewis in “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (Photo by Ben Arnon/Magnolia Pictures)

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” (directed by Dawn Porter) is a respectful biographical documentary that puts a lot of emphasis on the important, trailblazing work that U.S. Representative John Lewis (a Democrat representing Georgia’s 5th congressional district) has done for civil rights. But in the documentary’s enthusiasm to put Lewis on a pedestal, the film shuts out any opposing opinions. Regardless of anyone’s political beliefs, there’s no doubt that Lewis (who participated in the documentary) has led an inspiring life. However, it’s ironic that a man who’s known for standing up to opponents and critics has had his current opponents and critics excluded from a biographical film of his life.

Almost everyone interviewed in the movie is part of the U.S. mainstream political establishment, a Lewis family member, or someone who works for Lewis. The only Republican interviewed in the film is U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, who’s represented Wisconsin’s 5th congressional district since 1979.

Sensenbrenner, who is a former chair of the House judiciary committee, doesn’t really say anything substantial. He essentially praises himself and Lewis for being able to work together: “I think the cooperation, which has been outstanding, between John Lewis and myself ends up being an example that we can get important things done by being bipartisan, whereas if we were not bipartisan, they never would’ve happened.

Other people interviewed in the documentary are Democratic politicians Nancy Pelosi, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, James E. Clyburn, Cory Booker, Stacey Abrams, Ayanna Pressley, Sheila Jackson Lee and the late Elijah Cummings, who said he’s flattered when people mistake him for Lewis. And there are other known Democrats who are among the chorus of praise for Lewis in the movie, such as former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, civil rights activist Bernard Lafayette Jr. and professor/historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Lewis’ past and present subordinates also share their thoughts, including Anthony Johnson (Lewis’ former press secretary); Michael Collins (chief of staff); Brenda Jones (communications director); Ruth Berg (former receptionist); Rachelle O’Neill (senior constituent and external affairs liaison). Lewis’ family members and close friends who are interviewed in the documentary include siblings Henry Lewis, Ethel Lewis-Tyner and Samuel Lewis; son John Miles Lewis; and Xernona Clayton, who was a close friend of John Lewis’ late wife Lillian Miles Lewis, who passed away in 2012, at the age of 73.

Clyburn (a U.S. Representative from South Carolina) says of John Lewis: “He’s probably the most courageous person I ever met.” Ocasio-Cortez (a U.S. Representative from New York) says that she wouldn’t be where she is today had it not been for the trails blazed by John Lewis and other civil-rights activists. “So much of John Lewis’ activism was to highlight the inaction of the federal government.”

Hillary Clinton has this to say about John  Lewis: “His voice and his example are needed, now as much as they’ve ever been since he was a young man.” Abrams comments: “You cannot replace John Lewis. It’s a matter of strategy, someone who has cultivated a story to remind us that our past has not passed.”

It’s not surprising that John Lewis doesn’t get any criticism from any of the people interviewed for this documentary. (And if they did say anything negative about him, it didn’t make it into the film.) What saves this movie from completely one-sided banality is that it does present an excellent historical view of the obstacles and brutal struggles that John Lewis has faced to fight for the causes that he believes in and passionately advocates. The film does a very good job presenting him as someone who doesn’t give up easily. He’s got a fiery and opinionated personality, but he also has deep compassion for others.

John Lewis (who was born in 1940 in Troy, Alabama) was at the forefront of the U.S. civil rights movement that began in the 1950s and blossomed into groundbreaking laws and sweeping social change in the 1960s. In the documentary, he remembers how his parents discouraged him from getting involved because they feared for his safety. But he ignored their concerns and decided to join the movement, despite getting beaten up and arrested several times.

John Lewis has always been a proponent of peaceful protests (consistent with what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also advocated), and he says he was also heavily influenced by Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., who taught him how to organize and act in peaceful demonstrations. The “good trouble” in the documentary’s title refers to John Lewis’ well-known catch phrase for the kind of trouble he likes to get into: If it’s for a good and worthy cause, it’s “good trouble.”

People who know about Lewis’ civil-rights history and what he does as a U.S. Representative probably won’t learn anything new from watching this documentary, which includes lots of great archival footage of his civil-rights activities. There’s also newer footage, such as when he gave speeches at rallies for fellow Democrats who ran for government positions in the 2018 mid-term elections. Beto O’Rourke, Colin Allred, Marc Veasey, Abrams and Lizzie Fletcher are some of the politicians who received John Lewis’ enthusiastic endorsement during their campaigns.

Although “John Lewis: Good Trouble” doesn’t uncover anything new or surprising about him, it will be an eye-opening documentary for people who don’t know much about John Lewis, who is a bona fide hero to a lot of Democrats and liberal-leaning voters. Much of the film discusses the personal sacrifices he went through to fight for a greater cause. Therefore, it’s no wonder that the documentary includes a lot of footage of star-struck people greeting Lewis with joyful hugs, enthusiastic handshakes and sincere thank yous when he goes out in public. The documentary also shows his lighter side by mentioning the viral video of John Lewis dancing to Pharrell Wlliams’ “Happy” (which is one of John Lewis’ favorite songs) in 2014.

It’s apparent from watching the film that his life revolves around his work, but that doesn’t mean that John Lewis has lost his priorities in how he treats people close to him. His chief of staff Collins gets emotional and teary-eyed when he remembers that when his father died in 2006, John Lewis went to the funeral of Collins’ dad instead of being at the historical signing of the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated policies designed to prevent people of color and financially disadvantaged people from voting.

In the documentary, Pelosi (a U.S. Representative from California) says that the re-authorization Voting Rights Act poor people and  is one of Lewis’ biggest legacies: “One of the greatest experiences in the Congress which I treasure was working under John Lewis’ leadership and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We put together [the re-authorization of] the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in 2006.”

Even though the documentary has a plethora of praise from John Lewis’ current Democratic allies, the film doesn’t shy away from including details of past conflicts that John Lewis had with people fighting for the same causes. He says he was essentially removed as leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when Stokely Carmichael was elected national chairman in 1966, because the SNCC no longer agreed with John Lewis’ pacifist beliefs. The documentary also mentions the friendship-turned-bitter-rivalry between John Lewis and fellow civil-rights activist Julian Bond when they campaigned against each other in 1986 for the same Georgia congressional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Carmichael died in 1998, and Bond died in 2015, but it would’ve been interesting for the documentary to include the perspectives of people who were allies of Carmichael and Bond when they were political rivals to John Lewis. The closest that the documentary comes to interviewing anyone who speaks of having political tensions with John Lewis is when Bill Clinton (who is pro-death penalty) comments that John Lewis’ anti-death penalty views helped Bill Clinton became more open-minded on the issue. Bill Clinton says of John Lewis: “He was against the death penalty as a matter of conscience.”

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” could have been a boring retrospective about a longtime politician/activist looking back on his glory days. But the documentary makes it clear that he’s still got a lot of fight in him for challenges facing the U.S. and the world today. And true to his nature, he’s not going to back down from any fights.

As he says in the opening scene of the documentary: “I feel lucky and blessed that I’m serving in the Congress, but there are forces today trying to take us back to another time and dark period. We’ve come so far, we’ve made so much progress, but as a nation and as a people, we’re not quite there yet. We have miles to go.”

Magnolia Pictures released “John Lewis: Good Trouble” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 3, 2020.

July 17, 2020 UPDATE: John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2020. He was 80 years old. Lewis had publicly announced his cancer diagnosis in December 2019.

Review: ‘Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations,’ starring Andrew Goldberg, Brad Orsini, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Deborah Lipstadt, Jean-Luc Slakmon and Valerie Braham

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Andrew Goldberg and Russell Walker in “Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

“Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations”

Directed by Andrew Goldberg

Culture Representation: This documentary examines the rise of anti-Semitism in four countries: the United States, Hungary, the United Kingdom and France, featuring interviews with various people (almost all Caucasian) who are experts or have firsthand knowledge of the topic.

Culture Clash: Most of the people interviewed in the documentary say that anti-Semitism is a prejudice that has gotten worse in recent years, due to conflicts over economic uncertainty, immigration and more political leaders who openly express hatred of Jews.

Culture Audience: This movie will be of interest to anyone who is interested in contemporary news and social issues to find out the root causes of this bigotry and what can be done about it.

Jean-Luc Slakmon in “Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

The excellent documentary “Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations” takes the concept that prejudice against Jews is like a viral infection that keeps spreading, and the movie focuses on four mutations in particular. Each mutation gets a chapter in the documentary.

“Chapter I: The Far Right” examines the far-right ideologies in the United States that have led to an increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes. “Chapter II: Blaming the Jew” puts the spotlight on Hungary and certain political leaders’ noticeable obsession with demonizing Hungarian Jewish billionaire George Soros. “Chapter III: The Far Left” takes a look at anti-Semitism in far-left factions of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, as exemplified by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And “Chapter IV: Islamic Radicalism” investigates anti-Semitism in France, particularly from radical Muslims.

Jewish actress Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife,” “ER”) provides narration in the beginning and end of the film, but the main narrator is writer/director/producer Andrew Goldberg, who’s also seen on camera interviewing some of the people in the documentary. Goldberg is a longtime journalist, and his expertise in newsgathering shows in the quality of this film. The editing by Diana Robinson (who’s also a producer of the documentary) is also top-notch. This is the type of movie that could be shown not only in traditional cinemas but also in schools and for groups that have an interest in news, anti-hate activism and other social issues.

In Chapter I, which covers anti-Semitism in the United States, among those who are interviewed are people who were witnesses or connected to the 2018 horrific mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people—the deadliest massacre of Jewish people in the United States. Those interviewed include Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers and former FBI agent Brad Orsini, who is currently security director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Meyers says that, based on the rise of anti-Semitic crimes in the U.S., the massacre was sadly inevitable. “To many, we will always be ‘other’ and not welcomed here,” he adds. Orsini has difficulty holding back tears, as he remembers witnessing the carnage at the scene of the crime, and he describes his current work in helping train synagogues in protecting themselves from these crimes in the future. Rabbi Elisar Admon of the Jewish Burial Society holds up a copy of a Hebrew Bible and shows a bullet hole that cut right through the word “God.” Admon says it’s a sign that even under the threat of violence, Jewish people “have to keep going” and never lose hope.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton believes that “economic stagnation” and a “feeling of powerlessness” fuel the anti-Semitism that has been on the rise in America. Meanwhile, former white supremacist Arno Michaels admits that when he was in a hate group, he would usually target young white Christians who had something wrong in their lives—whether it was an abusive home or other lack of support system—and tell them warped lies to feed their insecurities that their problems were caused people who aren’t white or Christian. Other people who weigh in with their observations about anti-Jewish hatred in America are “Antisemitism: Here and Now” author Deborah Lipstadt, journalist/CNN host Fareed Zakaria, conservative political commentator George Will and Eric Ward, an expert on bigotry-related violence.

In one of the most memorable sections of the documentary, director Goldberg travels to Hoke County, North Carolina, where he interviews former chemical engineer Russell Walker, who ran for the North Carolina State House of Representatives as an openly white supremacist Republican. Even though Walker lost the election, he still managed to get 37% of the votes. During the interview, Walker shows Goldberg one of his campaign signs. On one side, it says, “What’s Wrong With Being a Racist?” and on the other side it says, “God Is a Racist.”

The interview is an example of what several people mention is the documentary: Bigots don’t just look like the radicals seen marching at hate rallies or committing terrorists acts. Many of the worst bigots are friendly and polite to the faces of people they hate (as Walker is when he interacts with Goldberg), but behind closed doors, they are plotting dangerous ways to eliminate the people they consider enemies because of their races or religions.

Many of these bigots are running for political office and using patriotism to disguise their hate-filled beliefs. Some of the people in the documentary mention U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as two examples of politicians who have influenced the rise of anti-Semitism. (Some of the murderers who have committed the worst anti-Semitic crimes have quoted remarks made by certain politicians in power.)

The documentary’s Chapter II shows what many people outside of Hungary do not know: Hungarian native Soros, who has made sizeable donations to liberal politicians and liberal causes, has been labeled as the biggest Jewish enemy to Hungary. There are anti-Soros billboards, display signs and ads almost everywhere in Hungary that describe Soros as a Jewish “boogeyman/puppet master,” and Orbán frequently makes public remarks denigrating Soros. Hungarians interviewed in the documentary say that anti-Semitism in Hungary has been increasing for the past four years.

Chapter III of the documentary shows that in the United Kingdom, anti-Semitism has become more noticeable in the left-wing Labour Party, which has prided itself on having a “justice and equal rights for all” image. However, people interviewed in the documentary, such as former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and Margaret Hodge (a Labour Party MP), say that economic uncertainty has fueled anti-Semitism for many British people who are on the far left of the political spectrum. Communist/Socialist-leaning left wingers who don’t like Western capitalist policies often see Israel as an ally to the West. This belief also plays into negative stereotypes that Jewish capitalists are greedy.

The documentary mentions that British politician Luciana Berger resigned as MP and left the Labour Party altogether in 2019. She says she quit the party because of anti-Semitism. Berger is now a member of the Liberal Democrats political party. Labour Party MP/chancellor John McDonnell says the Labour Party “hasn’t been quick enough in dealing with [anti-Semitism].” Many believe that Corbyn’s open distaste for Israel is based more on anti-Semitism than based on political beliefs. Several people in the documentary have cited Corbyn’s criticisms of Israel as causing divisions in the Labour Party and being one of the reasons for Corbyn’s downfall.

Chapter IV of the documentary has gut-wrenching descriptions of hate crimes targeting Jews in France, which experts in the documentary say is the nation with the highest-levels of anti-Semitism in Europe. Hate crimes against Jews in many other countries are often perpetrated by people who identify as Christians. But in France, the most high-profile hate crimes have been committed by people who identify as Muslim/Islamic.

One of the people interviewed is Jean-Luc Slakmon, who was an employee working at Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, France, on January 9, 2015, when a radical Islamic man held 19 people hostage and murdered four of them. Slakmon, who is shown in the documentary taking a Krav Maga self-defense class, believes his life was spared because of his diminutive height and because he fully cooperated with the gunman. Slakmon goes back to the scene of the crime, and his anxiety is visible, as he says being there is like reliving everything all over again. It’s obvious that he wants to break down and cry on camera, but he doesn’t.

Meanwhile, Valerie Braham also gives an emotional interview about the devastation caused by anti-Semitic hate crimes. Her husband of nearly 10 years, Philippe Braham, was murdered in the Hypercacher massacre. She describes what kind of man he was (a great husband and father) and how the family will never recover from the loss. Simone Rodan-Benzaquen of the American Jewish Committee in France says that it’s common for Jews in France to constantly think about moving out of the country.

What should people take away from seeing this movie? This is what director Goldberg said in a statement: “I am a filmmaker and journalist, not an activist. We tried very hard to make a documentary that was not just a report but an actual feature film people would want to see. Many asked us if we had a ‘call to action’ for how people could help fight antisemitism, or if we offered solutions. We purposefully did neither. I have always believed that a well-educated populace is where we need to begin for people to make the best decisions.”

Dark Star Pictures released “Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations” in New York City on February 21, 2020. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release expands to more cities, as of February 28, 2020.