A sprawling exploration of a progressive coalition that includes the inner-city-focused Urban League and Latinx-focused UnidosUS, Gumbo Coalition is the latest picture by Barbara Kopple. The legendary documentarian explores the power of organizing and finding common ground, even in one limited situation with the Trump administration. The first part of Kopple’s sprawling and insightful film feels like it’s arriving a few years too late, while the second half is more forward-looking as progress continues––the Urban League and UnidiosUSA hit the ground to spread the word about voting and ultimately get Biden elected.
Gumbo is usually a delicious stew of parts others might disregard as scraps. The film, in that sense, bounces between moments and various geographic locations while offering a candid character study of the Urban League president Marc Morial and UnidosUS leader Janet Murguia. At times this can be frustrating—the film highlights myriad interconnected programs like the Save Our Sons initiative in St. Louis, focusing mostly on setting-up justice impacted men leaving prison for success. Some go on to find meaningful work to support their families and become advocates for voting rights; others fall back into traps frustrating their support systems and reentry coaches.
With a perceptive eye, the structure mimics the balancing act these organizations do in the name of broader progress, highlighting the cruel ways Trump’s administration deported a man named Jose during a routine required check-in with ICE. Murguia provides the structure for his wife Rose to tell her story and advocate for change, while continuing to keep the pressure up even as the world locks down in the spring of 2020.
Any one of these threads themselves could be an entire feature or—at the very least—an extended, fascinating short. Thus the question: is this gumbo too rich to be contained in a 108-minute feature documentary pot? As I learned during the Q&A, the film’s producer initially produced a short-subject web documentary about the Urban League before fate brought them together with Kopple.
The common thread that ties together all of these stories is Morial and Murguia’s friendship and proximity to power as they take their organizing virtual before taking to the streets in the summer of 2022. The film captures candid exchanges in public forums including Zooms with candidate Joe Biden and one perhaps too-candid exchange where Kamala Harris phones Murguia for advice on what exactly winning would look like as the campaigns prepare for debates and test messages.
Gumbo Coalition does vividly capture the sausage-making of on-the-ground advocacy and ultimately the work of calling attention to a multitude issues. Kopple is granted access to many of the rooms where these conversations happen, showcasing both high-level discussions with then-czar of “special projects” Jared Kushner and the on-the-ground work with the participants of Save Our Sons.
The film is a reflection of a very broad coalition; perhaps that is the point, though one can wish Kopple instead spent a little more time exploring each of these programs and stories in greater detail. Perhaps there’s enough here for a mini-series or three-to-four feature documentaries.
Gumbo Coalition world premiered at DOC NYC 2022.