Directed by Kevin Gordon
Now Playing in Los Angeles
‘True Son,’ Kevin Gordon’s new documentary about the election campaign of a 22-year-old Stockton, California City Council hopeful, aspires to be an inspirational beacon of youthful idealism in America’s sea of political apathy and gridlock. But the doc suffers from a sweeping lack of specificity, conflict, and depth, giving it the feel of a bloated 70-minute puff piece.
City Council candidate Michael Tubbs isn’t so much a human being as a walking stump speech: a sporadically eloquent, platitude-spewing machine. Viewers never get to know Tubbs deeply as a person, making it tough to care about whether he succeeds or fails. Nor does the film delve into Tubbs’s political ideas, beyond his broad statements that poverty and crime are bad. Do these claims really differentiate Tubbs as a candidate? Tubbs’s opponent is presumably not running on a pro-crime and poverty platform either. What, specifically, does Tubbs mean to do about poverty and crime? Neither Tubbs nor filmmaker Kevin Gordon provide an answer, making it tough to understand what’s at stake for the community or to believe that Tubbs is the right candidate for the job.
“True Son” opens in medias res, introducing us to Tubbs on Election Day, 2012, as he scrambles door-to-door to scrounge up eleventh-hour votes, offering to shuttle local denizens to the voting booths. The film then jumps backwards one year, to the embryonic stages of the campaign, when Tubbs is inspired to return to his hometown of Stockton and run for office after the shooting death of his cousin.
“True Son’s” most illuminating and resonant section explores Stockton’s extreme poverty, class inequality, and record-setting murder rates. Gordon lets us know that Stockton has twice been voted America’s “most miserable city” by Forbes magazine. Gordon offers us interviews with aggrieved Stockton locals, crime reports from the city’s outraged news anchors, and footage of Stockton’s violence. The film also points out that before Detroit, Stockton was the largest American city ever to file for bankruptcy.
Gordon successfully paints Stockton as a microcosm of America: A disintegrating middle class, a severe stratification of wealth and power, and an uber-wealthy aristocracy that rules at the expense of the increasingly impoverished and disenfranchised. Gordon juxtaposes images of Stockton’s opulent mansions and gated communities with shots of its crumbling slums and shuttered homes. “True Son” goes on to explore the galling political challenges preventing Stockton’s most helpless from receiving assistance. Gordon explains – through brief narration and some nifty on-screen graphics – that Stockton is partitioned into six distinct voting districts (Tubbs is running for district 6), each with a council seat. But Stockton’s districts each adhere to city–wide voting laws: Residents get to vote not only for the representative of their own district, but for the other five districts as well. Though this law might seem to favor Stockton’s oppressed majority, the film makes it clear that the city’s ruling elite drums up far superior voter turnout, thanks to incredibly deep pockets for advertising and campaigning. The upshot is that Stockton’s poorest are routinely left without a champion. Stockton’s desperation and dysfunction sets the perfect stage for Tubbs’s campaign.
But “True Son” fails to give us more than a perfunctory overview of Tubbs as a person. We cursorily meet his family and friends, all of whom heap generic praise onto Tubbs. Our time spent with these individuals – from Tubbs’s mom Racole to his best friend Tylicia – is too brief to make an impact and does little to deepen Tubbs as a subject. We learn that Tubbs excelled academically, graduating from Stanford, and felt inspired to do something meaningful with his life after meeting his incarcerated father for the first time as a boy. Tubbs decided then and there not to make the mistakes his dad did. Tubbs’s backstory might have made him a rich and compelling subject had the filmmaker taken more time to explore Tubbs’s feelings about his impoverished, fatherless upbringing.
The rest of the film follows Tubbs’s grassroots campaign, launched with the help of campaign manager Nicholas Hatten, Field Director Lange Luntao, and dozens of devoted volunteers (mostly Tubbs’s friends and family). Hatten is the veteran campaign guru who whips novices like Tubbs and Luntao into shape. Hatten forces Tubbs to grow up and confront the unpleasant realities of campaigning, like self-promotion and hitting up everyone in town for cash. Gordon shows that the line between politician and panhandler is negligible during campaign season. Gordon takes us through the year-long efforts of Tubbs and his team, including door-to-door canvassing, cold calling, fundraising, town hall meetings, and a televised debate with Republican incumbent Dale Pritchett, culminating in Election Night. In the highlight of the campaign, Tubbs procures a $10,000 donation from national icon Oprah Winfrey, making Tubbs only the 3rd political candidate Oprah has ever supported, along with President Obama and U.S. Senator Cory Booker.
During town hall meetings, Tubbs is a personable political natural, sustaining constant good cheer and infectious enthusiasm. He wins over one crowd by sharing a poignant story: He overheard two young Stockton children debating which one had personally known the most murder victims. But Tubbs is more sizzle than steak: He relies on platitudes, metaphors, and vagaries to win over voters, instead of offering concrete suggestions to fix Stockton’s problems. In fact, Tubbs’s fallback maneuver against opponent Dale Pritchett is “going negative.” Tubbs repeatedly accuses Pritchett of morally bankrupt leadership and corruption. Tubbs’s attacks against Pritchett during the televised debate undercut the notion that he’s a new brand of politician who wants to chart a different course for the city. It’s tough to care whether Tubbs wins or loses, because Tubbs offers no concrete alternatives to Pritchett’s ideas. And Tubbs’s negative attack strategy makes him unsympathetic, especially since Pritchett’s only statement about Tubbs is that “he seems like a nice kid.” It’s clear what Michael Tubbs stands against: Dale Pritchett. But what does he stand for? What would he do differently? What does a Tubbs victory mean for the city?
The film quickly loses steam and entertainment value, stymied by an utter lack of conflict. Tubbs cruises through campaign season thanks to the $10,000 check from Oprah and shrewd political advice from his seasoned campaign manager. If Tubbs faced any major hurdles or setbacks in his election campaign, Gordon hasn’t captured them. Tubbs’s emotional low-point comes when he’s forced to canvass alone one day, because his volunteers are busy. But this hardship is quickly forgotten when Tubbs gears up for his debate. And Gordon offers no clear metric by which viewers can judge Tubbs’s success, such as polling data or shifting Election Night vote counts. Instead, viewers don’t learn how close the race is until Tubbs has essentially already won, depriving the film of a suspenseful, hard-fought victory by its subject. Gordon’s camera is confident and fluid – seamlessly cutting between news reports, graphics, and interviews – but not particularly stylish or cinematic.
Ultimately, “True Son” is undermined by its lack of conflict and clarity. To those who reject any cynicism of this ambitious young man and his idealistic on-screen portrayal, here’s one final nugget, ignored by the filmmaker: Three weeks ago on October 18, Michael Tubbs was popped for a DUI with a blood-alcohol level of .137.
— Jason Teich