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Regional Interests

Now Playing! The Everyday Heroism of Barbara Lee

When East Bay filmmaker Abby Ginzberg’s latest documentary had its local premiere 13 months ago at a pandemic-shortened edition of the S.F. Jewish Film Festival, it played under the title Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me. Ginzberg’s use of the rhyming catchphrase of the Oakland congresswoman’s constituents positioned the film as a community-centric portrait of a populist politician.

The film opening this Friday, Aug. 20 at the Roxie, the Shattuck and on demand has been slightly re-edited to include the subsequent election of another prominent Black woman, Vice President Kamala Harris, and carries a faintly different title: Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power. I prefer the assertiveness of the original—Lee’s supporters’ vocal identification with her, and her persistent championing of her constituents are rare and precious in American public life—but perhaps it was deemed too obscure or insufficiently inviting for viewers beyond the Bay Area.

Still from ‘Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power.’ (Greenwich Entertainment)

That makes a certain sense, for one of the film’s unspoken goals is to lift Lee and her progressive policies out of the realm of local issues and accord them national status. From that standpoint, the timing of the film’s national release is perfect: Her concerns as a single mother—poverty, child care, education and health care, which have long been dismissed as women’s issues—have been exposed by the pandemic as the nation’s most pressing problems. President Biden’s American Families Plan acknowledged that reality, although it’s too early for its benefits for low-income households to be fully realized.

(The prolific Ginzberg released another other important documentary in 2020 spotlighting economic injustice and the working class. Waging Change exposed the multiple indignities endured by tipped workers, and serves as an activist bookend to Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power.)

For a hot moment, Barbara Lee was a national figure after she cast the only vote in the House of Representatives against the appropriation of vast war powers to the president following 9/11. An indelible act of principle and courage that Ginzberg justly devotes an early, extended segment of her film to, it was a defining moment of Lee’s career but not her peak accomplishment. The bipartisan congressional coalition she put together to provide significant HIV/AIDS funding to Africa—and her persuasion of President George W. Bush to launch that program—likely tops the list.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes a selfie with Reps. Barbara Lee, Anne McLane Kuster and Jan Schakowsky in 2019. (Greenwich Entertainment)

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power positions its subject in a continuum of congresswomen and men of color stretching from Shirley Chisholm (whose presidential campaign Lee worked on) and John Lewis (who offers several pithy comments in one of his last sit-down interviews) to Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Black Panthers get their props, too, for demonstrating to Lee both the need for breakfast and early-education programs and the government’s abdication of its responsibility to its people.

As the successor to the beloved Ron Dellums, who originally brought Lee to Washington, D.C. as an intern and promoted her to his chief of staff, Barbara Lee has carved out her own legacy. Like its subject, Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power has a sense of humor and a bit of style but keeps it eye firmly on the prize.

‘Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power’ opens Aug. 20 at the Roxie Theater in S.F. and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and on demand. Details here.

Copyright 2021 KQED