Leadership material: Two new political documentaries spotlight a civil rights icon and a young mayor

0

Travis Leamons // Film Critic

The way people get lost in a rabbit hole of YouTube videos about a particular interest is what happened to me when two political documentaries caught my attention. Now I feel as if I spent all night cramming for a political science exam that turned out to be an essay on leadership in a viewfinder.

JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE

Rating: PG, 95 minutes
Director: Dawn Porter

If there’s one thing to take from JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE: voting matters. The documentary, which made its arrival to VOD platforms a few weeks before the U.S. Congressman’s untimely passing, makes a substantial case for the importance of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To get to its significance, filmmaker Dawn Porter offers us John Lewis. “That boy from Alabama,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called him. Lewis dedicated himself to the civil rights movement. He did everything from staging sit-ins to desegregate Nashville lunch counters to help organize the March on Washington. He was a Freedom Rider who adhered to the idea that getting into trouble was not bad if one was engaging in “good trouble, necessary trouble.” That mantra would define a legacy and goes hand in hand with his arrest record. (Lewis had more than two dozen arrests before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.)

GOOD TROUBLE is not a critical examination of Lewis as a politician. It’s not majorly concerned about the pieces of legislation he’s sponsored/cosponsored or voted against. The documentary is more reflective about Lewis, his transition from activist to politician, and his progress for change. The right to vote is a key component to enact change. Yet, as we follow Lewis to speaking engagements, we also hear stories of thousands of polling stations – mostly in southern states – shuttering as the Supreme Court ruled that states did not need federal approval to close voting locations.

That is a problem. To fully grasp the idea, Porter has Lewis in a room and projects footage from his involvement in peaceful demonstrations. In particular, the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. Trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama State Troopers would beat the marchers with billy clubs. Lewis would sustain a concussion after receiving several blows to the head.

Fifty-five years after getting a concussion so the country’s consciousness could be awakened (as a member of Congress remarks on camera), it’s hard not to acknowledge that the country is backpedaling. Voting rights infringed; the use of excessive force seems like a rerun of the 1960s. This documentary is proof that John Lewis was right. For change to happen, you need to get into some “good trouble.”

Grade: B

The Magnolia Pictures release is now available on digital platforms.

STOCKTON ON MY MIND

Rating: Not rated, 92 minutes
Director: Marc Levin

STOCKTON ON MY MIND follows a different approach. “Upset the setup.” When the system is against you, you might as well turn it on its head.
The same night Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, Michael Tubbs became the mayor of Stockton, California. Two significant achievements happened with Tubbs’ victory. He became the youngest mayor for a major American city at age 26, and Stockton’s first African American mayor.

Rising above his impoverished status to graduating from Stanford University, his political victory seems like a feel-good movie before reality sets in. Director Marc Levin follows Michael Tubbs and his political struggles as he puts forth some bold initiatives to reform a town that previously declared bankruptcy after the 2008 subprime mortgage collapse.

The implemented programs include his universal basic income (UBI) plan, which provides $500 a month to 125 randomly chosen residents. Other projects tread familiar territories like education – a scholarship program for high schoolers called “Stockton Scholars” (funded by a $20 million grant from Tubbs’ former Stanford roommate, Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel) – and anti-gun violence with the “Advance Peace” program.

Because these initiatives are so new, the documentary provides no clear indication of success or failure –– which likely means Marc Levin will return in a few years with STOCKTON: STILL ON MY MIND, should Tubbs find himself reelected as mayor.

The final result is conflicting. This is a doc that aims to engage while avoiding going beneath its subject’s surface and his forward-thinking programs. Its most remarkable character is Raymond Aguilar. Raymond shared a prison cell with Michael’s father, who remains incarcerated to this day. Upon his release, Raymond befriended the young mayor and became a liaison in helping at-risk youth as part of Advance Peace. If only the entirety of STOCKTON ON MY MIND could be as awe-inspiring as this giving gesture in paying it forward.

Grade: C+

The HBO Documentary Films release is now available on HBO.

About author