THE STORY OF
STOCKTON ON MY MIND
BY DIRECTOR MARC LEVIN
We are living through a unique moment in our history, simultaneously struggling to cope with a health crisis, an economic crisis and a social justice crisis. This unprecedented convergence has highlighted the ravages caused by our nation’s systemic racism and structural inequality, two major themes of our work here at Blowback.
For the last 50 years, there's been a new kind of war at home, which has its roots in our racist white supremacist past. The war on drugs, which Nixon declared back in 1970, gave us the New Jim Crow. As Eddie Ellis, one of the organizers of the Attica Prison Rebellion, wrote, the African American journey could be summed up as, "From the plantation to the projects to the prisons."
What are the solutions? How do we break the school to prison pipeline, end mass incarceration, root out police violence and corruption, reform our criminal justice system and fundamentally change our economy to create a fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth?
A large number of our films speak to these issues. In the wake of the nationwide protest movement after George Floyd’s horrific murder, PBS is now rebroadcasting Twilight Los Angeles, HBO has offered Baltimore Rising for free on Youtube and will be offering it on HBO Max, and Freeway: Crack in the System was listed by Best Life as one of the “13 Documentaries About Race You Need to See If You Haven’t Yet.”
Now we are thrilled to announce our latest film, STOCKTON ON MY MIND, which will have its world premiere at the virtual AFI DOCS Festival June 17-20th. Then it will debut on HBO on July 28th.
STOCKTON ON MY MIND is the multi-layered story of a millennial mayor, Michael Tubbs, wrapping his personal journey together with the social policy incubator he's creating as he works to "Upset the Setup.”
Since the 2008 financial crash, we have been focused on two main story lines - how these profound global economic changes are impacting everyday people's lives (Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, Hard Times: Lost on Long Island, Class Divide, One Nation Under Stress,) and how people and their local leaders are trying to bring about reform and change for a more equitable, just and sustainable social contract ("Brick City," "Chicagoland," "Second Coming," "Ocean Warriors.") Those two themes converged in Stockton, California.
The father/son relationship (or lack of relationship) is a raw nerve in the African American experience. Too many young men grow up without a father and end up repeating the cycle themselves. So upsetting the set up, breaking the school to prison pipeline and rebuilding families are fundamental to any progress. Here we had the unique opportunity to try and capture that on both a very intimate personal level and on the public policy level.
I first visited Stockton, which was ground zero for the sub-prime mortgage collapse, to explore the human consequences of such a dramatic economic crisis. I came back a few years later looking for a new generation of local leaders, which is when I first met Michael Tubbs Jr as a young 22-year-old Stockton City Councilman. I was impressed by his energy and enthusiasm. He claimed he was one of only three politicians Oprah Winfrey had contributed to - the other two were Cory Booker and Barack Obama. Pretty good company. I had recently finished the Peabody Award winning-series "Brick City," on Mayor Booker and Newark, New Jersey. And I was working on a CNN series on the struggle for change in Obama's hometown, "Chicagoland."
Tubbs quickly set out in his words to "Upset the Setup" and to turn his beleaguered city into a social policy incubator. Soon he was talking about starting the first mayoral backed Basic Income demonstration, setting up a college scholarship fund for the city's youth, and trying out a controversial violence reduction program. I was intrigued. But what really convinced me there could be a compelling documentary here, was Michael's personal story. He was born to a single teen mom and his dad has been in prison most of his life. As he says, "I was set up for two things, either prison or death." He defied that fate and has made his mission finding ways to help others "Upset the Set Up."
Was there a way to combine Michael's personal story with these public policy initiatives? Michael was open to including a network of change agents working on these issues, but was not keen on me getting to his father. That was certainly understandable. He's a politician and didn't want his father's story used against him in any way. I told him I respected his reservations but felt I needed to see if I could get to talk to his father on my own.
I was able to get in touch with Michael's father, Michael Tubbs Sr, and eventually visit him in prison. I was taken by his intelligence and insights. He was a charismatic character whose childhood friend used to call him "the mayor." As we talked I wondered if I could identify any young people in Stockton today who mirrored his story. So our producers, Mike, Cassius, Jonathan and I started searching. Could we find a teen mom like Michael’s mother Racole? Could we find a young man who was caught up in the street life like Michael's father? This mirroring effect could extend Michael's personal story to a new generation. And most important, it could let us see if these young lives could be impacted by some of the programs the Mayor was trying to create to UPSET THE SET UP.
I was shooting the film at the same time I was working on the Quibi series "I Promise" about the LeBron James public school for at risk kids in Akron. So I felt totally immersed in these innovative approaches to creating opportunity for disadvantaged youth. I was commuting between the 3rd and 4th graders at the I Promise School and the 11th and 12th Graders at Edison High School in Stockton. It was an inspiring period.
Many political films are built around campaigns and the election horse race. I made one myself back in 1992, "The Last Party," with Robert Downey Jr. I wanted this film to be different. I wanted the personal stories to anchor the bigger picture and give emotional weight and drive to the policy innovations. I wanted the focus to be on creating change both personally and politically and to be on governing instead of campaigning.
Interestingly, Michael became a father himself at the end of the production. He and his wife Anna announced her pregnancy near the end of 2019. As he prepared for fatherhood, he became more curious about his own father's story. Eventually, he asked to see the full interview I did behind bars with his father. I think he watched it days after his son Michael Malachai was born. That personal journey of reconciliation remains unresolved, but it is the subtext of this documentary. I appreciate that Michael trusted me enough to be open to include that side of his story.
Michael encouraged us to broaden the canvas to include some of the other activists in Stockton. This allowed us to see a community in action working in a complex holistic ecology of change. And now suddenly this outlier, once thought to be ground zero for every problem in America, is ground zero for some of their solutions. In the midst of this pandemic and national protests, politicians, policy makers, pundits and academics are debating the programs Mayor Tubbs launched just a few years ago. Certainly, a year ago, it would have been hard to imagine that Universal Basic Income would be considered by both Democrats and Republicans.
STOCKTON ON MY MIND actually chronicles the implementation of some of these bold policies in a community which Forbes magazine once labeled the most miserable city in the United States. Stockton knows the pain of going bankrupt and hitting bottom. But under the leadership of their first African American mayor it also knows something about resiliency, recovery and how to rebuild a new social contract that works better for the common good.
At the end of the film, the rapper Common visits Stockton to advance his criminal justice reform work and to give a free concert. He tells Michael and a group of community activists, "It wasn't on our minds to go to Stockton, I'm just being real with you."
Back in 2016, Stockton was not on anyone’s mind. Today, that is about to change.