When veteran East Bay politician Barbara Lee recently got on Zoom to talk about the inspirational new documentary detailing her life and career, the computer’s camera was off, and her little box on the screen read “blee.”
The lower-case letters somehow seemed fitting from the congresswoman who, at a sneak preview in Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre of “Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power” with director Abby Ginzberg, called herself “a reluctant subject.”
“You know, I don’t really like being filmed. I just do my work and I work pretty hard,” said Lee, on the Zoom call with Ginzberg to promote the movie, which opens Friday in San Francisco, Berkeley and Sebastopol and streams on demand.
As someone who guards her privacy carefully, Lee – the progressive U.S. Representative for California’s 13th congressional district in her 12th term — admits that holding public office in some ways goes against her reclusive Cancer personality type. But she adds, “Yet I know this world needs people who are going to fight for justice and for change and for equity and equality.”
That attitude struck Ginzberg, one of Lee’s constituents, who made 2005’s award-winning “Soul of Justice,” about African American civil rights lawyer and judge Thelton Henderson.
“I look for people who inspire me and who themselves are not the most famous person in their orbit,” says Ginzberg, who began the movie with no master plan other than knowing that Lee’s historic sole vote in Congress opposing the authorization of military force after 9/11 would be of primary focus.
“It was such a moment of moral, ethical and intellectual clarity for her. She was under pressure from a lot of people to vote differently,” says Ginzberg.
For Lee, the vote didn’t represent a career turning point, but it was defining, risky and “dicey.” “The death threats came like you would not believe,” she says, adding that she’s thankful for the security provided by police during those potentially dangerous days.
Among the film’s less intense scenes is a segment about Lee’s crusade to join the cheerleading squad — she’d be the first Black member — at her Southern California high school in the Pacoima area of the San Fernando Valley.
She worked with the NAACP to map out a strategy to show that the process of selecting cheerleaders by a small committee was discriminatory and organized some rallies around the issue.
“We were able to force the administration to change the rules so that cheerleaders could try out in front of the student body and then the student body would elect cheerleaders. I tried out after we got the rules changed and I won,” she says. A Japanese-American girl, the first Asian member of the squad, was voted in the same year.
In another amusing scene, Lee proudly shows off the exterior of a home in Oakland’s Maxwell Park she bought for $19,000 around 1970 and decorated herself with orange shag carpet and matching leopard wallpaper and furniture in the converted family room.
“I was on welfare and I owned that house and it was so cute,” she says. Lee was attending Mills College at the time, raising two young sons Tony and Craig, who, as adults, give their perspectives of their mom in the film.
Ginzberg says she unusually chose to rely heavily on Lee’s family, which is extremely close, to provide insight to help viewers understand what motivates Lee, and the congresswoman was OK with their participation: “Fortunately, my family, they know me so well, they know what lines not to cross,” Lee says.
As she came of age, Lee credits her mother and her friend Shirley Chisholm, the Black New York congresswoman who ran for president in 1972, as being “very influential” to her growth.
While the documentary reveals Chisholm as a mentor who convinced Lee, an activist working with the Black Panther Party, to register to vote for the first time (Lee went on to work for Chisholm’s campaign, which set her on a path to become a staffer in U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums’ office), Lee shares on Zoom that Chisholm did more than simply talk about how systemic changes could diminish inequality.
When Chisholm visited racist Alabama Gov. George Wallace in the hospital after he was shot, something Lee vehemently opposed, it turned out to be “the moment she convinced him of his terrible ways,” his daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy told Lee years later.
Wallace even went on to help Chisholm with her legislative agenda, teaching Lee a valuable lesson: “Even with your adversaries, never call them your enemies.”
Commenting that the impeccable Chisholm “dressed like you would not believe,” Lee adds that they had a great relationship: “And I really miss that, because even after she retired and I came to Congress, we talked on the phone frequently.”
Asked about what was left out of the movie, Lee says, “We didn’t get too far into my work around Cuba, the Middle East, Africa, all the stuff I do abroad.”
Ginzberg tactfully responds, “I actually was desperate to go with Barbara to Africa. You know, I would have loved to have done it. Once it became clear that I wasn’t going to get access to a congressional delegation going anywhere, I had to sort of let it go.”
But the filmmaker said she made her point by linking Lee’s extensive work in Oakland around AIDS to the work she’s done in Africa.
IF YOU GO: Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power
Starring: Barbara Lee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cory Booker, Alice Walker, John Lewis, Van Jones
Directed by: Abby Ginzberg
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Note: The film opens Aug. 20 at the Roxie in S.F. (Lee will appear in person on Aug. 26); Shattuck in Berkeley; and Rialto in Sebastopol; and streams on Amazon Prime.