04/28/2014 12:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"True Son" Documentary Follows Michael Tubbs' Inspiring Rise To Public Office

Sacramento Bee via Getty Images

This year at the Tribeca Film Festival, one documentary follows the inspiring electoral journey of a political underdog.

Michael Tubbs of Stockton, California, is unlike any councilman you've ever known. Last year, at the age of 22 and newly graduated from Stanford University, he was an unlikely candidate for public office. The documentary "True Son," which debuted last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows Tubbs through several months of campaigning for a seat on the city council of Stockton, and ultimately captures his victory.

It's worth noting that Stockton was, at the time, facing imminent bankruptcy and, as Tubbs points out during the movie, "more murders per capita than Chicago and Afghanistan." The son of a teenage mother and an incarcerated father, Tubbs had already succeeded in defying bleak odds as a young, black male in his troubled community by graduating from college. He was working at the White House when a personal tragedy ignited a sense of responsibility within him that would lead him back home.

As Tubbs wrote at The Daily Beast earlier this month:

During my internship, my cousin was murdered in Stockton, one of 50 homicides that year. In the midst of grieving, I began to feel that I had a special responsibility to use the resources I had been given to make the world a better place, although in which capacity was still unclear. It wasn't until a year later that I achieved clarity when I decided to run for city council in Stockton -- with no money or political experience. The impetus behind this decision was a desire to change the odds for children like my cousin and me.

First-time producers and sisters Jhanvi and Ketaki Shriram -- whom knew Tubbs from Stanford -- sought out director Kevin Gordon and convinced him to make Tubbs' long-shot campaign the subject of his first feature documentary. Gordon's film crew consisted mostly of novices, which was mirrored on the other side of the camera: Tubbs' campaign support came largely from people with little political experience. Aside from campaign manager Nicholas Hattan, organization efforts were executed solely by Tubbs' family and friends from the community, such as his field director and fellow Stockton native Lange Luntao.

In addition to being the youngest ever Stockton city councilman -- an office which he won with 60 percent of the vote -- Tubbs teaches community college classes to high school students at Langston Hughes Academy. He's given TED talks, launched an initiative to get more millennials involved in the political process, and can boast a full endorsement from Oprah Winfrey herself. Tubbs told HuffPost Live recently that Stockton's homicide rate is now down 60 percent from when "True Son" was filmed.

When showered with praise by grade school students at a screening of the documentary last week, the young councilman assured them, "I have 24 hours, two arms, two legs just like everybody else." That may be true, but there is also something exceptional about Tubbs' dedication and ability that might restore your faith in politicians.

When Tubbs and Gordon sat down with The Huffington Post, the director had this to say about the subjects of the documentary: "For me, personally, it was an inspiration to work on this film, about them, be with them -- it was just contagious, the energy on the campaign. I'd become a little cynical about social change even though I was committed to it, so seeing it actually happening up close was amazing."

You've mentioned the Montgomery bus boycott, Freedom Rides, and protests in Birmingham as influential to your work and career. What inspiration has the civil rights movement been to you?

MT: In college I was so blessed to have relationships with those who did the civil rights movement. Marian Wright Elderman was one of my mentors -- I did community organizing training under her leadership, and then two days at Harvard Education School with her and other movement leaders to think about what the 21st century movement looked like. I was 19 years old, and that was incredible. My junior year in college I was able to re-enact the Freedom Rides with the original Freedom Riders, and spend 10 days on a bus speaking with them about the choices they made, going to every single stop with them and hearing what they did, what that meant. Growing up, I read all three of Frederick Douglass' autobiographies by the time I was 12. And so I was very much steeped in this idea of ordinary, young people making change, especially marginalized, African-American people. In a way, that was always part of my DNA.

Do you have an ideal milestone you would like to see passed in your lifetime?

MT: I think nationally, anti-poverty would be great. Full employment is something MLK fought for before he was murdered. When I was in high school, people would ask me what I wanted to do, and I would always say I wanted to "lead marches and give speeches." I'm still trying to figure out if I can do that as an elected official and what that would look like.

You mention reconnecting with your "social justice roots" on HuffPost Live. What do you mean by that?

KG: I did human rights and criminal defense work for a few years after college -- I was law school-bound for a while. We were working on appeals for guys on death row and we put together their entire life histories, basically portraits of the underclass that would then just get buried in court archives. I wanted to be screaming at the top of my lungs about our cases, as did everybody. I got frustrated with the laws and interested in media as a way to push cultural shifts on a broader scale.

So you already had some experience telling people's stories before the making of "True Son."

KG: It was totally like making a documentary, but with a pen instead of a camera.

How do you go about approaching this kind of story?

KG: It's funny, there's always this challenge in how to structure a documentary and how much you owe to objective truth. I'd like to say there's one key answer to all that, but mostly it's a case-by-case basis -- you just feel what's right or what's wrong. I'd say our overall guiding principle was to stay true to our subjects, true to the campaign. Our other guiding principle was to make the film as inspiring as possible. We wanted to package the story in a way that would bring people along on this journey in the most powerful way that we could.

Even without knowing the outcome, did you have a clear idea how you wanted to contextualize the campaign?

KG: Our primary storytelling strategy was Michael's development from this inexperienced young idealist into a more seasoned campaigner and politician, and the only way to accomplish that was to keep him grounded at the beginning. We deliberately chose cameras that were scrappier to match the underdog feel of the campaign. We could have shot it on one of these big sexy cameras that would have made Michael look heroic. But we wanted to start him off grounded and let the audience draw its own conclusions about him -- and slowly become impressed with him over the course of the film. In general, my style is understated. It's not big and pompous. When we were having the composers do the music, they were big Hollywood guys who wanted to blow the roof off the film. And we said, "No no no, this is a small-scale underdog campaign, we gotta keep it simple."

How do you think this being a first-time campaign and first-time feature project added to the success of "True Son"?

MT: Watching the film, strictly speaking from the campaign perspective, I forget how gritty and bootstrap we were. It was a great reminder that there was such a grittiness and idealism, that there was a real truth and authenticity to it that can get lost when you're in the seat and in these meetings all the time. You can lose sight of how you started in your living room.

KG: There was an interesting parallel between the film crew and the campaign team that all of us were first-timers, all of us were figuring it out as we went -- having parallel journeys of making mistakes and learning. In particular, during the edit stage it was again like we were starting from scratch, with a new edit team, and we were literally taking inspiration from the campaign team as we were editing, saying "We can do this, we can figure this out." In every edit there is a moment you think, "How are we going to finish this movie?" And then somehow you break through.

What surprised you about the making of the documentary?

MT: How much control I actually didn't have. I thought I'd be a low-key producer or something, politics and film at the same time. But also I'm not a big movie person -- my girlfriend gets mad at me because I go to sleep whenever we go to the movies. It's nap time. But through this festival I saw the power of narratives and how a film can speak to someone even better than a speech I give or something I write. I had no idea that this is some really powerful stuff. We brought it to a prison, we showed it to a bunch of white liberals, we showed it to some kids in Harlem and we got some great reactions. This film really transcends the boundaries of time because it's a living thing. It will live forever. I didn't realize that. It's incredible.

KG: The most interesting challenge for us was that we didn't want to affect the outcome of the campaign. Our biggest nightmare was that something we did [would] cost Michael the election. You're talking about the tiniest of possibilities, but it affected us. At one point, a local reporter had noticed [us] at a few events and protests and and wanted to do a story. I had to talk him out of it and said, "No, we don't want any press about the fact that we're chasing Michael around," because he was already getting comments from other politicians.

MT: People were obnoxious, they thought, "You hired this crew to document [the campaign]!" Who does that?

KG: We had to talk that reporter out of the story -- and there were power players in town and reporters that we did want to talk to, but again didn't want to influence their impression of Michael or the campaign. So we put that off until the end of the election [...] We did our best to avoid affecting the outcome.

When you were younger, you thought you were going to be a management consultant. Now you're a teacher and councilman. What are your plans for the future?

MT: For the next 10 years I'm really focused on improving Stockton, or at least setting in motion things to help improve it. But I'm not convinced being elected to office is the only way to do that. I think [...] being elected to office was a powerful way to do that and had the most impact -- but maybe in eight years it's being a program officer for a major nonprofit organization. Maybe in 10 years it's going back to school and getting my Ed.D to become superintendent in the Stockton school district. Because I'm really young, I think there are a lot of options, and I would hate for my whole focus to be staying elected, because doing that would change a lot of decisions I make and make me a lot more careful -- which may or may not be a bad thing. I do see myself focusing on Stockton specifically for the next 10 years, but I really care about a global and national scale as it relates to poverty and unequal distribution of resources. So I see myself working on that in some large-scale way, whether it's as an advocate leading marches and giving speeches like I said I would do at 16, or whether it's as an elected officeholder, or whether it's as a university figurehead or policy person. I haven't figured that out yet. I do love being a councilman right now. I tell people that and being a teacher are the two best jobs in the world.

Visit the "True Son" website for information on where to see the film.

kevin gordon
Michael Tubbs, Kevin Gordon and producers Jhanvi and Ketaki Shriram.



Poverty In Stockton