‘True Son’: Film Review

Courtesy of True Son Productions
A clear-eyed, compelling look at getting out the vote, grassroots-style. 

First-time documentarian meets first-time politician in the story of a local California campaign

Arriving just in time for the midterm elections (and Oscar qualification), True Son is a heartening portrait of a grassroots political campaign. With its troubled setting — a crime-wracked, left-for-dead district of a segregated California city — and idealistic protagonist, the documentary will likely draw comparisons to Street Fight, which chronicled Cory Booker’s run for mayor of Newark. But Booker looks like a seasoned hack compared to Michael Tubbs, the impassioned Stockton native who launched his 2012 city council bid when he was only 21.

Director Kevin Gordon’s first feature-length film accentuates the positive by focusing on Tubbs rather than campaign dynamics. Tensions do arise, but they’re the stuff of optimism in action, not the personality clashes or dirty politicking that so often go with the territory. Opening October 31 in New York and a week later in Los Angeles, the brisk, bright doc is nearly enough to restore faith in a long-tarnished system — at least on the local level, in places that corporate interests might ignore.

After graduating from Stanford with honors, Tubbs returns to his hometown, a city in California’s Central Valley that Forbes called the worst in the country. Bankrupt and charting record murder rates — Tubbs’ close cousin was among the victims — it’s the last place his mother expected to find him postcollege. But she becomes one of his first door-to-door canvassers, along with the rest of his family and high school and college students, all of them learning as they go. “Can you count on his vote?” one eager teen campaigner asks a potential supporter.

Gordon catches the gear shifts with the arrival of campaign manager Nicholas Hatten, a young but experienced local Democratic Party pro. The biggest challenge for Tubbs, who loves to talk issues and solutions and already has spearheaded mentorship programs, is the need to overcome his distaste for fundraising. “Asking people with no money for money” is how he characterizes it. Hatten skillfully teaches him to convey the bottom-line urgency to supporters. The small checks start arriving, along with those from high rollers Oprah Winfrey and MC Hammer, and things are looking up.

Tubbs’ opponent, the Republican incumbent, is seen only briefly in the film, a choice that is, in itself, a comment on his accomplishments or lack thereof. While more multilayered political documentaries, among them Joshua Seftel’s Taking on the Kennedys and Wayne Ewing’s The Last Campaign, grapple with the absurdities and dark business of politics, Gordon’s film shines a hopeful light. But it’s never simplistic.

Through the prism of Stockton’s 6th District, with its high poverty and unemployment rates, the film touches on polarization in the American political landscape. It points out that citywide votes for district-specific seats — like the one that Tubbs faces — have historically been used to suppress minority voices.

Engaging with people of all ages, the charismatic Tubbs lacks the image-conscious polish that defines most politicos. It’s not merely his youth that makes him extraordinary — it’s his larger view of the campaign, his determination to build a movement that empowers Stockton’s disenfranchised citizens. Hatten frets that the candidate “wants to change the world, and I just want him to win an election.”

Thanks to Gordon’s astute camerawork and ace editing by Laura Green (with an assist from first additional editor Emile Bokaer), the road to that election unfolds with energy and insight.

Production company: True Son Prods.
Featuring: Michael Tubbs, Nicholas Hatten, Lange Luntao
Director: Kevin Gordon
Producers: Jhanvi Shriram, Ketaki Shriram
Director of photography: Kevin Gordon
Editor: Laura Green
Music: Jared Banta

No rating, 71 minutes