The scene outside the Grand Lake Theatre before the premiere screening of Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power” was so Oakland. Moviegoers waiting to enter the box office doors were approached by a handful of protestors who passed out literature. Because a Bay Area celebration of one of the most progressive members of Congress should naturally include grizzled activists with clipboards, tote bags, and a list of additional demands. It reinforced why Barbara Lee is loved by her district. Lee’s constituents feel their influence on her actions; hence the bumpersticker, “BARBARA LEE SPEAKS FOR ME.” Director Abby Ginzberg’s new documentary beautifully captures how Lee’s legacy is deeply rooted in our region’s unique political landscape.
The atmosphere inside the theater felt as festive as possible, given the worrying spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant. Local leaders of culture, small business, and government were in attendance. The fully masked crowd was a mix of constituents and celebrities, some dressed casually while others got fancy for the red carpet. Some guests huddled for photographers in the theater lobby. Colleagues and acquaintences cautiously reconnected as they tried to recognize each other’s covered faces.
Anchored in the Wake of the 9/11 Terror Attacks
On September 14, 2001, Lee’s political fame crystalized for most people when she cast the sole vote against Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001, which grants the President power to go to war without congressional approval. Watching the film’s footage of Lee choking back tears of grief as she casts her vote still feels raw after all these years, especially considering the cousin of her Chief of Staff, Sandré Swanson, died on United flight 93.
The film also included footage of the 9/11 victims’ memorial service that took place the day prior to the vote. Clips of some of the war-mongering speeches were followed by Lee commenting how the vengeful tone of the service did not solemnly honor the lives lost. She shared that she knew she would vote no on the resolution during the service when a member of the clergy urged, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Lee famously repeated that plea when she cast her vote.
For Bay Area anti-war activists who marched during that era, the film’s trip down memory lane may feel extremely validating, infuriating, or both. Watching Civil Rights icon John Lewis say that he initially worried Lee had ended her career with the no vote, only to admit regretting his own vote decades later, is bittersweet (especially considering the long-serving Congressman passed away last year). The fact that another similar resolution passed the following year in enabling President George W. Bush to launch the war with Iraq in 2002 and that Lee has campaigned to repeal it every year since is a civics lesson in endurance.
Most audience members at the Grand Lake clapped and cheered in the scenes depicting moral victories as well as the heartfelt, reciprocal relationship Lee shared with her constituents at that time. When Lee faced brutal attacks for her vote in 2001, celebrity activists like Alice Walker, Joan Baez, and Danny Glover organized a rally of thousands of supporters at Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza. Supporters in the footage from that event may have very likely been in the theatre. The film’s display of Lee’s courage during that era may even feel medicinal for some filmgoers, like an inoculation strengthening viewers for the upcoming onslaught of jingoism the 20th anniversary of 9/11 terror attacks will likely bring.
As Lee’s children described the death threats and security protocols required after her vote in 2001, I shuddered in my vintage velvet theatre seat, thinking what might have happened if the weaponized internet that we know today had existed 20 years ago.
By the People, for the People
In addition to her courage, the film documents Lee’s accessibility remarkably well. From shadowing Lee at a barber shop to showing her on stage at Oakland’s massive Dia de los Muertos celebration. Lee is always on the move, talking with constituents on the street or attending community meetings.
In the film, Lee described the East Bay as “a tale of two districts,” buckling under the pressures of growing income disparity. She shares how her lifelong commitment to elevating the issue of poverty has origins in her politics but also her personal, lived experience. As a young single mother, Lee credited the housing assistance she received through the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) with helping her flee an abusive marriage and chart a new course for herself and her children. At one point in the film, Lee stands outside the house in Oakland’s Maxwell Park that she was able to call home thanks to the HUD program.
Oakland history buffs will appreciate how Ginzberg masterfully compiled and edited archival footage of the East Bay during Lee’s earliest political days as a student at Mills College and as a volunteer for the Black Panther Party. In one snippet, Lee drew a direct line from her early work with the Panthers to federal public policy. Specifically, she highlighted that the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program was the first of its kind organized at that scale and it helped shape the federal free breakfast programs that exist today.
The film makes it clear that while Lee has always fought for social justice since her youth in Texas and Southern California, her mettle was forged by and for the East Bay, first as a campaigner for Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 run for president and later as a staffer for Congressman Ron Dellums. At one point early in the film, Lee’s son Craig said, “Oakland and Berkeley are her values.” Indeed, there are moments of the documentary when it feels impossible to separate the politician and the place.
The Wide Canopy of Lee’s Political Family Tree
Lee’s body of political work is staggering, especially since she shows no signs of slowing down, from her earliest days as a State senator managing to pass 66 bills of legislation with a Republican governor to her monumental effort in Congress getting George W. Bush’s approval on an international aid package for those suffering from HIV/AIDS in Africa. Her current battles include expunging criminal records for marijuana offenses, fighting for eviction moratoriums during the pandemic, and a Third Reconstruction economic policy to end poverty in the United States.
Just like Lee was mentored by trailblazers before her, the film premiere detailed her influence on the next generation of progressive leaders, here in Oakland and across the United States. In the film, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley boldly described Lee as “the actualization of our values.” In the post-film Q&A discussion, moderator and BART Board President Lateefah Simon* shared personal anecdotes of Lee’s tireless advocacy, fondly adding “when she gets up in the morning, she makes the devil mad!”
Oaklanders might especially appreciate the advice Lee imparted as shared by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the film. Ocasio-Cortez recounted how Lee told her sometimes to truly lead the nation, one has to walk out ahead of the crowd and stump on the metaphorical corner. You may start alone, Lee explained, but eventually the rest of the crowd catches up to meet your values.
Lee also shared her harrowing experience of the attempted Insurrection on January 6th and said she is “proud to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit” to hold the conspirators accountable. “We are facing a serious threat to our democracy and we almost did not have a peaceful transfer of power,” she added.
During the post-screening Q&A discussion, Lee thanked everyone involved in the film and event, but also expressed regret she was not back in DC “on the steps of the Capitol with Cori” in solidarity with the many Americans who may lose their homes due to the lapse in the federal eviction moratorium.
Ginzberg ended the discussion with a call-to-action, rallying the audience to visit the film’s website to get involved. Since the film’s original premiere date at the 2020 San Francisco Film Festival was canceled due to COVID-19, its reach will extend through word-of-mouth and related advocacy campaigns.
“I [want] everyone to know Barbara and see the model she became for the rest of us,” Ginzberg said.
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Where to Watch the Movie on Friday, August 20th
Get tickets to see Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power on Friday August 20th at Shattuck theater in Berkeley for a Q&A with Director Abby Ginzberg. Tickets are also available at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and the Royal Laemmle in Los Angeles. Check the film’s website for other upcoming screenings.
*Editor’s Note: Lateefah Simon is also the Executive Director of Akonadi Foundation, a funder of Oakland Voices.