'Stockton on My Mind': Film Review

Stockton on my Mind- Publicity still 2 - H 2020 
Courtesy of HBO
A pedestrian portrait of an exceptional subject.
7/28/2020

Emmy-winning director Marc Levin profiles Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs and his bold initiatives to reform the embattled California city in this HBO documentary.

If Michael Tubbs were a fictional character, the details of his life until 2016 — the year he became the mayor of Stockton, California, at age 26 — might be too by-the-book inspirational to feel believable. Born to a teenage mother and a criminal father who has spent most of his son's life behind bars, Tubbs excelled in school and won a full scholarship to Stanford, where a friendship with future Snapchat co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel would play an outsized role in his political career.

After the fatal shooting of his 21-year-old cousin, Tubbs returned to his Central Valley hometown of 300,000 to reform it, becoming the city's youngest ever councilmember at the age of 22 (with the help of a $10,000 campaign contribution from Oprah Winfrey), then its youngest ever (and first Black) mayor four years later. It should be of no surprise at this point in Tubbs' biography that, after a White House internship during his time at Stanford, he received Barack Obama's endorsement for his mayoral run.

Tubbs has cut such a stirring figure that HBO's Stockton on My Mind, the new documentary portrait of his years in the mayor's office, isn't even the only feature about him. (Filmmaker Kevin Gordon followed Tubbs' city council bid as a fresh-faced college grad in 2014's True Son.) But governance presents extraordinary challenges in the best of situations — which is not how most would describe Stockton, described by director Marc Levin in an intertitle as "one of the poorest, most violent, least literate cities in the nation." Since the usual measures weren't making the necessary changes, Tubbs, it seems, decided to turn his city into a policy laboratory.

Stockton on My Mind focuses on three novel programs that Tubbs has implemented. (And yes, that means the documentary is largely aimed at the Leslie Knopes of the world.) The most buzzy initiative — the one that Tubbs was invited to discuss on Real Time With Bill Maher — is his universal basic income (UBI) plan, which provides $500 a month to 125 randomly chosen Stockton residents. The other measures are more familiar: a scholarship program for all Stockton high-school alumni enrolling in a four-year university (funded by a $20 million grant from Tubbs' former dormmate Spiegel) and greater investment in an anti-gun violence org that encourages mediation between rival boys and young men.

Levin interviews several young Stocktonians whose lives have been or (more often) might be impacted by these initiatives, but because they've all been administered so recently, the most interesting theme of the documentary becomes the opposition that Tubbs has faced for them, including a failed recall effort in 2018. Protestors — largely white and older in this majority-minority city — express their discontent over their tax dollars going to the scholarship and UBI programs, despite the fact that both are funded by external gifts. It's a fascinating look at how communication failures from the mayor's office (or perhaps disinformation campaigns online against Tubbs) have led to resistance by many within Stockton against such ambitious plans.

But Levin seems unwilling to explore in any depth the political fissures within the city, let alone how Tubbs is perceived by his fellow Stocktonians. Nor does he evince any curiosity about the long-term viability of government initiatives underwritten by private donors and organizations — or the strings that may be attached.

The lack of any definitive cases or statistically significant outcomes for these programs within the documentary also robs it of narrative propulsion. Tubbs makes for an exceptional and inviting subject, and Levin does capture some striking images and moments, like the mayor singing along to Drake's "God's Plan" in his office or talking about deliberately sagging his pants right before entering his high-school classrooms to prove a point to his teachers that intelligence and (their perceptions of) blackness aren't mutually exclusive. But Levin's footage isn't particularly notable, and the mayor's big swings, however promising, have yet to prove themselves. Perhaps the seemingly inevitable third documentary about Tubbs will give us an update.

Premieres Tuesday, Jul. 28, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.