Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me, a feature length documentary, tells the complex story of Representative Barbara Lee, a steadfast voice for human rights, peace and economic and racial justice in the US Congress who cut her teeth as a volunteer for the Black Panther Party and was the lone vote in opposition to the broad authorization of military force following the September 11th attacks. In 2001, she issued a strident warning in the House of Representatives: “Let us not become the evil we deplore,” and today she continues that clarion call, demanding that Congress stand up to a president who has escalated tensions with numerous foreign governments, while seeding division within his own country.
Truth to Power reveals how many of the challenges faced by Barbara Lee early in her life provided her with the motivation and commitment to improve the lives of others throughout her tenure as an elected representative. With unique access to a sitting member of Congress, this film not only introduces the public to Barbara Lee but to many others such as Senator Cory Booker, Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, CNN commentator Van Jones, actor Danny Glover and author Alice Walker who all share insights about what makes Barbara Lee unique as a public servant and as a truth-telling African American woman. It was our pleasure to interview Abby Ginzberg, the director of the film.
What was your inspiration behind the making of your film Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power?
I was motivated to make the film because I felt like more people outside of California should know about Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and what makes her special both as a woman and as a public servant. I am a constituent of Barbara's and have been a fan for a long time, but I know that many people around the country did not know of her or her courageous role in the events immediately following 9/11 when she was the only member of Congress to vote NO on the bill which authorized President George W. Bush to use force around the world, without seeking authorization from Congress. Although I did not realize this at the time since I started the film before Trump was elected, spending close to 4 years documenting Barbara's role as a critical part of the opposition helped keep me sane and motivated me even more to tell her story.
What is the most challenging aspect of working in this particular genre and on a film that features so many voices in such powerhouse positions?
First, it was an honor to be able to interview so many members of Congress, from Senator Cory Booker to Reps. Jim Clyburn to Gregory Meeks to Lisa Blunt-Rochester, AOC, Ayanna Pressley and Lynne Woolsey, all of whom who I respect and admire. Most impactful for me was Rep. John Lewis because his honesty and regret that he had not voted with Barbara on the Authorized Use Of Military Force was particularly moving. I would not have had access to the people that are in the film if it were not for the help I received from Barbara and her staff who made introductions. So what might have been the most challenging, namely getting on people's calendars, was facilitated by how much people respect Barbara and were happy to participate. In terms of the editing and choosing who and what to include, we were guided by the question of how does this advance the story we are telling about Barbara Lee. The Republican Congressman, Rep. Walter Jones, who is in the film, was a very unlikely ally of Barbara's since he was a conservative from North Carolina. But once he joined her on the issue of Congress needing to take back its war-making power, he became a solid supporter of her work around the AUMF and revealed her willingness to work across the aisle, even if she only agrees on one important issue with the person. They were an unlikely team, but stronger for it.
How did you choose the cast for Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to power?
I had a list of people that I thought would make good interviews for different reasons--some because they had been with Barbara throughout her two decades in the House (Reps. Lewis, Clyburn and Meeks), others because they were new members who had been mentored or helped by her (Reps. Blunt Rochester, Pressley and AOC). I also spoke with members of Barbara's staff for suggestions about a few Republicans I could interview and chose Walter Jones because of his connection to the AUMF story. I was committed to including a story about Barbara's work on HIV/AIDS both in Oakland and in Africa and filmed a conference in DC commemorating the 15th anniversay of PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) where I heard Josh Bolten, President Bush's former Chief of Staff, speak and decided to approach him. Ironically, Dr. Anthony Fauci was also on the panel but Bolten had worked closely with Barbara and Dr. Fauci had not yet become known for his current role. Had I foreseen that the country would all know who Dr. Fauci was, I most likely would have pursued an interview with him as well. How did the Cast come together? (answered above) What are some of the messages in the film/from the cast that stands out?
I think some of the messages that are worth underscoring in the film are Rep. Ayanna Pressley's point that "those closest to the pain should be closest to the power"; Senator Cory Booker's point "what drives Barbara is that she is not concerned about popularity, she's concerned about her purpose, not celebrity it is about significance in the lives of people," ; that Barbara Lee has been 'the conscience of the Congress' (Van Jones); that sometimes you have to stand on the corner and wait for others to follow you there (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) We just came out of a big month celebrating Women's History Month. It seems you have several women in your film CAST including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Alice Walker, and of course Barbara Lee, what traits do all of these powerhouse women share and how does their story inform this film's message?
Each of the women in the film had strong mothers who encouraged them and enabled them to see themselves as leaders. That was definitely true of Barbara's mother, Mildred Massey, who was one of the first 12 African Americans to integrate University of Texas at El Paso and was the first African American civilian employed at Fort Bliss. She encouraged Barbara to be herself so Barbara attributes much of her strength and honesty to her mother. The film also introduces the audience to a number of strong African American female leaders, including Pulitzer prize winning author Alice Walker, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, the only representative from Delaware; Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the first African American woman to be elected to Congress from Massachusetts; Rep. Gwen Moore, who represents Milwaukee, WI. Taken together, they have changed the face of Congress, along with others who were also recently elected and are all women to watch. Lastly, the film emphasizes the trailblazing role Rep. Shirley Chisholm played as the first African American woman elected to the House, who sought to open doors for those that followed her. As Barbara says, 'Because of Shirley, I am and Kamala is." What do you hope their contribution in this film will signify for women?
This film is a celebration of the important role these African American women have played in fighting for justice and equality and against laws and policies that seek to relegate women to second class status. The dual burdens these women have experienced and overcome so that they are now the elected representatives of their districts is worth noting, but only because someday soon their numbers will increase and it will seem normal that "A Woman's Place is in the House."
With our celebration of diversity and inclusion, specifically with regards to Women in Entertainment, and the ongoing push to continue bringing awareness in Hollywood and the industry with Women in Film, it seems you curated a rare female crew who worked on Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, including Stephanie Mechura, Shola Lynch, Joslyn Rose Lyons, Rachel Antell, and Jennifer Petrucelli. What challenges do women still face in the industry? Women still face significant challenges both behind the camera and in front of it. We had a very strong female-centric team and I think that helped us craft a universal film. We took our direction and inspiration from our subject, Barbara Lee, and that enabled us to weave a complex story around a very solid foundation. Barbara's ethics, her respect for her colleagues and constituents and her willingness to take a tough stand and stick by it for twenty years, motivated all of us to help do justice to her story.
How has it been premiering Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, during the pandemic, What festivals have you shown at, what's next for the film?
The film was scheduled to premier at the San Francisco Interntaional Film Festival in April, 2020, which was cancelled due to the pandemic so the film had its actual premier hosted by both the San Francisco and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festivals at a drive-in in mid-July. This sold out event provided a great launch for the film. It has also been screened at the Woodstock, Sidewalk, DOC NYC, Pan African, Cleveland, Sonoma and Harlem Film Festivals. What accolades and awards has the film picked up so far?
The film won the Best US Documentary award from the American Film Festival in Poland and it won the Best Documentary Honorable Mention award from the Sonoma International Film Festival. It will be screening at the Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival in August, followed by a theatrical release. How does Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, change the world and have an impact on society?
One of the reasons I made the film was in the hope that Barbara Lee's story would inspire other women of color to consider running for elected office. It is too soon to tell whether that will happen, but I believe that spending time learning about Barbara, the challenges she faced and overcame and her indomitable spirit--as well as that of her mentor Shirley Chisholm-will inspire viewers to become more active in the fight for social and racial justice that Barbara has committed her to life to. Where can people see the movie next? Will it be available on DVD, on-demand, for streaming, or in theaters eventually?
The film will be available in theaters, virtually and on-line in early September. When can we expect to see another social justice documentary from your company Social Action Media?
I have another film that is currently being broadcast on public television called Waging Change about the tipped minimum wage, which is still $2.13 in many states. This means that restaurant servers, bartenders and others are only paid $2.13 an hour and are forced to feed themselves and their families exclusively off their tips. The film follows workers and the movement for One Fair Wage, which is fighting to end the tipped minimum wage, as part of the larger struggle to raise the minimum wage to $15 for all workers. Given the horrendous impact of the pandemic on the restaurant industry, where almost 70% of all workers are women, this film is extremely timely and reveals why the tipped minimum wage, which is a legacy of slavery, needs to be abolished. Let's wrap this article with some simple shout outs: WHo are some of the funders, festivals, people, and places that helped make Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power shine so far in 2021 during this pandemic and what can we expect from your film next?
The main funder for the film was the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, without whose support the film would not have been made.
The other key funder was the Kazan McClain Partners' Foundation. Both these organizations are based in Barbara Lee's district and understood the importance of sharing Barbara's story with a national audience. The film has been screened for members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Democratic Caucus and we have been very gratified to see the enthusiastic response to the film from Barbara's colleagues in the House. I would like to send a shout out to other members of the House who have joined in festival Q and A's including Rep. Karen Bass, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, former Rep. Charles Rangel but most of all to Barbara Lee, who has made time and space to be a part of every screening and has honored me with the privilege of telling her story.