(USA, 108 min.)
Dir. Barbara Kopple
The fateful months of 2020 and the early days of 2021 brought out the worst in the United States of America. Painful, traumatic, and horrifying as these days were to watch on the news and social media, this period also brought out the best in the democratic nation. Gumbo Coalition, the latest film from two time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA; American Dream), observes the battle for democracy and to preserve the integrity of the nation. The film follows two advocates for civil rights, Marc Morial of National Urban League and Janet Murguía of UnidosUS, as they join forces to mobilize and unite Americans from underrepresented communities. Gumbo Coalition urgently captures democracy in action.
Kopple and company join the social justice leaders on the campaign trail and learn how Morial and Murguía became respected champions for democracy. Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, credits his father’s earnest effort to instil within him a sense that politic engagement is the true road to social change. Morial’s story finds echoes in the Save Our Songs as Gumbo Coalition goes into correctional facilities where activists rehabilitate the spirits of inmates. The hope is that they return to society with a desire to actively participate as part of a functioning democracy. The campaign also fights for voting rights to be restored to people on parole: if they’re back in society, voting rights will inspire a sense of civic engagement. The controversial campaign argues that every person who contributes to society should have a say for its leadership.
Murguía approaches her campaign with a similar angle. As she fights for the rights of immigrants in America, she underscores how the country’s conception of who qualifies as “American” remains fundamentally flawed. A daughter of Mexican immigrants, Murguía understands the plight of families who arrive in the USA with hopes to build a better future. She’s living proof of the American dream, as she recalls bringing her parents to meet President Clinton in the White House. Before entering the Oval Office, she says her mother had to wipe a tear from her eye and ask, “How did we get here?” Murguía brings this sense for believing in oneself and one’s country. At meetings and rallies, she engages with families across the Latinx community to motivate them to take pride in being American and to fight for what that entails.
Her fight becomes particularly strong by focusing on Trump’s controversial border wall and the targeting of Latinx families by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Gumbo Coalition puts a face on the families ripped apart by overzealous policy. One heartbreaking story tells of José and Rose, whose happy life in America is shattered when José is detained unexpectedly during a routine check-in with immigration. He’s deported back to El Salvador, leaving Rose and their two kids alone and afraid.
Kopple’s signature cinema vérité emphasizes the human qualities of the many Americans whom Morial and Murguía encounter throughout their campaigns. There’s a fine attention to the diversity of American experiences here as the social justice advocates recognize that the lack of a one-size-fits-all approach to Americana is what makes the nation so great. The film observes as Morial, Murguía, and related organizations join forces. They follow Morial’s notion of the “gumbo coalition.” The idea draws upon the southern stew that’s a mix of everything. Morial and Murguía recognize that Black communities and Latinx communities can’t do it alone. They hit the streets, knock on doors, and remind Americans of all stripes that they’re in a shared fight.
So too do Democratic leaders come knocking. Morial and Murguía receive frequent check-ins from politicians hoping to be the next President. Morial Zooms with Joe Biden and other leaders to offer advice for civic engagement. Murguía gets a call from Kamala Harris. She answers it with a casual, “Oh hey, girl,” before talking shop. This insiders’ viewer captures the effort across different layers of the political spectrum to unite a divided America.
However, what begins as an earnest endeavour to engage citizens in the democratic process becomes an immediate fight for their lives. COVID-19, the death of George Floyd, and the accelerating crazy train of Trump combine to make the 2020 election one of the most important and decisive moments in American history. Follow that with the siege on the Washington Capitol and the Gumbo Coalition’s campaign assumes more significance. Kopple continues to capture Morial and Murguía’s fight as it moves from streets and rallies to Zoom calls. They don’t lose steam, and the film even finds a microcosm of the campaign as Morial’s son, Mason, gets ready to vote for the first time and joins the fight that his grandfather instilled in his father.
Gumbo Coalition inevitably sees more and more ingredients fall into the stew pot as the frenetic news cycle of 2020 intersects with the activists’ campaign. The challenge here is that Kopple obviously can’t ignore the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movements, and the sharp rise in white supremacy that mobilized Americans in 2020. These events connect directly to the efforts of the coalition. Unlike many other post-2020 docs that suffer from COVID cuts and seemingly try to account for every social justice issue under the sun, Gumbo Coalition harnesses recent events to show Morial and Murguía on the front lines.
Kopple manages the daunting task of incorporating unfolding events and she expands the narrative without losing sight of the story. This approach somewhat means that the latter half of the film offers images and stories that audiences have watched before and have seen examined through similar lenses. What Gumbo Coalition loses in freshness, though, it gains in perspective and access. This is an important look at recent history and players who helped steer America towards the right path. Moreover, Morial and Murguía provide clear eyes to make sense of a time that many of us still struggle to process.