Barbara Lee: A civil rights icon


“Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power” comes to the M.V. Film Festival’s drive-in theater at the YMCA in Oak Bluffs on Saturday, Sept. 11. It’s a documentary not to be missed. At a time when the country is so politically polarized, this film takes a refreshing look at a legislator who fights for what she believes in, not what is politically convenient.

Although she is not well known outside of California, where she represents Oakland and Berkeley in Congressional District 13, she is a hero to the people she represents. In an interview earlier this week, director Abby Ginzberg explained why: “She listens to her constituents, she learns from her constituents, she is in dialogue with her constituents. She’s a role model for what a good representative should be.” The highest ranking African American woman in Congress, she is in her 12th term as a U.S. representative.

Viewers meet her in the film as she argues for the children of immigrants, saying that child abuse is a violation of human rights. It’s an example of one of the many causes she has supported.

Her most significant stand came in 2001 after 9/11, when then President George W. Bush asked Congress for unlimited warmaking authority in response to the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers. In response to the National Cathedral memorial service for those who died, she argued that too many speeches were beating the drums for war. Quoting the Rev. Nathan Baxter’s sermon that called “for us not to become the evil we deplore,” she became the one vote against the Bush resolution. As a result, she made the national news and received death threats. In California, however, a rally of 3,000 gathered to support her vote. In 2017 she introduced legislation to repeal the 2001 authorization.

The film points out that Lee’s early experiences help to explain her commitment to bipartisan causes. She was born in El Paso, Texas, where her mother was refused admission to a hospital because she was Black.

Once she moved to California, as a teenager she succeeded in becoming a cheerleader despite the fact that she was Black in a predominantly white community. Although she was on welfare, she attended Mills College, taking her two sons with her because she couldn’t afford childcare. Her record on homelessness reflects her experiences as a single mother. At the University of California Berkeley, where she earned a master’s degree in social work, she became a community worker with the Black Panther Party, working with them on food distribution. As a congresswoman, Lee supported issues related to civil rights like incarceration, gun control, cannabis laws, and poverty.

The film illustrates Lee’s importance as a bipartisan activist with commentary from a number of well-known figures, including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, CNN commentator Van Jones, the late Congressman John Lewis, U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, actor Danny Glover, and Alice Walker, as well as her sons Tony and Craig.

In making “Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power,” director Ginzberg said, “I like telling stories about people who inspire me in the hope that the film will then inspire others that have never heard of the person. I am happy to report that audiences have in fact been inspired by Barbara Lee.”

For more information about the film and the MVFF schedule, visit