New Documentary Poses the Question: Reform or Revolution?

Barbara Lee:  Courtesy of the Pan African Film Festival

Undaunted, the pandemic can’t stop the Pan African Film Festival and in that immortal show biz tradition, the show must go on! Albeit virtually, as this year in order to stay cinematically safe, America’s largest and best annual Black-themed filmfest since 1992 is moving online and starting later than usual, kicking off on the last day of Black History Month. 2021’s Pan African Virtual Film + Arts Festival is taking place from Feb. 28 – March 14.

Abby Ginzberg’s Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me is a star-studded nonfiction biopic about the title character, who was the only member of Congress to have the courage and foresight to vote against the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force bill granting Pres. George W. Bush and all future presidents what Lee criticized as war-making powers that were “too broad… crazy.”

The 82-minute documentary traces Lee’s life, from her 1946 birth in segregated El Paso, Texas, and her family’s joining the Great Migration by moving northwards to L.A. in order to escape the brunt of Jim Crow. The film also chronicles Lee’s sometimes troubled personal life, that led to stretches of homelessness and being a single mother of two sons.

This formative period also gave Lee firsthand insights into poverty and what activism and the government can do to turn hardships around by empowering people. A beneficiary of federal and state programs, the solo mom became a homeowner and attended university at Mills College in Oakland and Berkeley, where she earned a Master of Social Work.

Living in the Bay Area, Lee became involved with the Black Panther Party, although Truth (perhaps artfully) avoids stating whether Lee was a card carrying, dues paying member of that revolutionary organization or a “fellow traveler.” Instead of emphasizing the Panthers’ militancy, Truth focuses on the Party’s “serve the people” free social programs, including children’s breakfasts, health clinics and political education classes, as well as voter registration.

(This year, PAFF is screening at least two other BPP-related films: The documentary 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers and Judas and the Black Messiah, which is probably Hollywood’s best political feature in years. See: Pan African Film Festival41st and Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers - PAFF 2021 and Pan African Film FestivalJudas and the Black Messiah - PAFF 2021. PAFF’s co-founder and fearless leader, Ayuko Babu, is a former Panther, which may explain PAFF’s astute cultural, political and educational prowess.)

Former BPP leader Ericka Huggins is one of the many notables interviewed and seen onscreen in Truth. These luminaries from the arts/entertainment and electoral worlds, including The Color Purple’s author Alice Walker and actor/activist Danny Glover (no stranger he to PAFF audiences!). On the electoral side of the spectrum there’s Sen. Cory Booker, those Congressional “Squad” members Ayanna Pressley and AOC, and the historic U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who poses what is arguably Truth’s main philosophical and political question: In order to attain social change, should activists work within the system or outside the system to overthrow it and bring about a new power structure? In other words, as the German/Polish Spartacus League leader Rosa Luxemburg put it: Reform or revolution?

As president of Mills College’s Black Student Union Lee had invited the Brooklyn Congresswoman to speak. There, Chisolm convinces a dubious, young Lee that the former reformist course is the correct one, and Lee registers to vote. She goes on to be a Chisholm delegate at 1972’s Democratic National Convention at Miami, where Shirley became the first Black female candidate to campaign to be the presidential nominee on a major party’s ticket.

Rising through the ranks, Lee joins the team of another mentor, Rep. Ron Dellums, and becomes the chief of staff of the Oakland Congressman, who she succeeds in Congress in 1998. As Lee has crossed paths with many luminaries, Truth includes many of them, including the late John Lewis. Although he is popularly portrayed as a progressive paragon, perhaps unintentionally, this documentary strips away part of that veneer as Lewis confesses he didn’t display the political courage Lee did by refusing to give Bush and future presidents “the right to make war without going to Congress,” as Rep. Lynn Woolsey puts it.

Lee was a relative newcomer and Lewis a veteran congressman by the time she cast the sole dissenting vote against that war authorization measure, which Lee has consistently tried to repeal since its passage. The film doesn’t go into details, but as a politician Lewis hasn’t always been on the left-leaning side, at least since his campaign for Congress against Julian Bond that dubiously included drug testing exams. During 2016’s presidential primary race, Lewis sided with the machine’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, not the movement’s candidate, Bernie Sanders. This is not to take anything away from Lewis’ undeniable Civil Rights heroism, but Truth does reveal that once he got enmeshed in electoral politics, even he was fallible.

The same could arguably be said of Lee herself. Late in the 2016 primary contest Lee endorsed Hillary. Although Bernie had campaigned for Lee’s reelection in 2018, during the 2020 primary season Lee did not return the favor and initially backed Kamala Harris’ short-lived campaign. To the best of my recollection, this documentary doesn’t cover these facts, and if I remember correctly, this arguably shows that Truth is being less than, well, truthful. Because objectively revealing these facts would indicate that even the great Lee falls short of always being on the right – or, rather, the Left – side of issues, and that as usual, electoral politics makes for strange bedfellows and compromises. Plus, it could call into question and belie this film’s main ideological contention and questionable thesis – that reform, not revolution, is the true path to achieving social change.

Shola Lynch, who has made nonfiction biopics about African American iconic women, Chisholm and Angela Davis, has a consulting producer credit for Truth. Ginzberg, a veteran filmmaker specializing in social justice documentaries, also uses a very straight forward conventional storytelling format. Truth has none of those cinematic techniques deployed by more daring documentarians like Michael Moore and Errol Morris. As such, Ginzberg is more Robert Flaherty, less Dziga Vertov in her form (and content).

Be that as it may, I enjoyed Truth, which has a joyous surprise ending that I didn’t see coming, and which I won’t plot spoil for you, other than to say it will leave you smiling. Which seems appropriate, considering the outstanding life story of this documentary’s admirable protagonist, who took the struggle out of the streets and into the halls of Congress.

For more info about Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me see: Pan African Film FestivalTruth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me - PAFF 2021.

For info about PAFF see: Pan African Film FestivalPAFF 2021 - Black films from across the world.