Political activism requires inspiration. We need to believe change is possible before we can spark the kind of action that creates change. Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth To Power is exactly the sort of documentary that gives viewers that spark. It’s the kind of story that fosters a belief that maybe, just maybe, we can make a difference.
Directed by Peabody Award-winner Abby Ginzberg, Speaking Truth to Power chronicles the life of Barbara Lee, a Black Congresswoman from California. Lee has made it her life’s work to champion America’s most marginalized people. But it’s not just a story about helping people. It’s a story about having the courage of one’s convictions, whether or not they’re popular.
Lee won her California congressional seat in 1998 before progressive politics were cool. But what’s so inspiring is that Lee never abandoned those politics.
With elegance and respect, Speaking Truth To Power tells the politician’s fascinating life story, starting with the racist hospital that nearly let her mother die in childbirth. From there, we learn about Lee’s early brushes with activism. Brushes like her quest to decolonize the tryouts for her high school cheerleading squad. But as much time as Speaking Truth To Power devotes to Lee’s glories as a student activist, it also makes sure to capture her struggles. This isn’t the story of a superhuman who never faced setbacks; rather, it’s the story of a human being who became a hero. And she became one by caring about other people’s struggles as much as her own.
In her twenties, Lee was a single mother of two sons living on welfare. Thanks to government policies, she was able to purchase a home and attend college. Sadly, the programs that helped Lee provide for her family while realizing her own dreams no longer exist. But they will again soon if she has anything to say about it!
During her twelve terms in Congress, Lee has advocated for countless pieces of legislation, working on important causes. Causes like freeing Black Americans who were imprisoned for minor drug offenses or creating more affordable housing. Lee also has the distinction of being the only Democrat post-9/11 who voted against the sweeping new defense powers George W. Bush demanded Congress grant him. Lee received death threats and hate mail for her opposition to the legislation, but she never wavered.
The facts of Lee’s life are undeniably impressive. But the most remarkable part of the doc is its vulnerable interviews with her colleagues. There’s one segment with late civil rights leader and member of Congress John Lewis. The icon explains how he admires Lee for voting against expanding Bush’s military powers. Lewis, a remarkable human by any metric, describes his regret over supporting Bush’s sweeping new defense legislation. Obviously, Barbara Lee masters of the sort of “good trouble” Lewis spent his career espousing.
Over the past few years, young female members of congress like AOC and Ilhan Omar have found themselves the subjects of considerable press coverage. They’ve also received the documentary treatment in Netflix’s Knock Down The House. It’s exhilarating to see mainstream media paying attention to millennial women in politics. Meanwhile, it’s equally important to remember the progressive Women of Colour who paved the way. In many ways, Ginzberg’s doc serves as the Knock Down The House prequel we needed.