Barbara Lee says she never sought the national attention often afforded a member of Congress.
But the 75-year-old California Democrat — a progressive first elected as a U.S. representative in a 1998 special election — finds herself in a big, bright spotlight as the subject of a new documentary premiering this week.
Lee tells PEOPLE she was largely an “unwilling subject” in Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, which premieres on Starz on Tuesday. But filmmaker Abby Ginzberg was “persistent.”
The end result, Lee says, was a “humbling” look at her life and career.
“[I’m just trying to] make sure that people who are working and look like me don’t have to go through all the challenges that I had to go through,” she says. “So I’m going to fight to change this county, and the policies and the world.”
(“I mean, that sounds kind of idealistic,” she adds, “but that’s really how I feel about my work.”)
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Lee drew perhaps the most attention of her career in 2001, when she was the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
At the time, public sentiment was largely in favor of going to war, but Lee was steadfast in her view that the authorization granted the president overly broad powers to invade at a time when the facts were not yet clear.
Lee received countless phone calls and even death threats as a result of that vote — a period of time she called “horrible” — but, to many, hindsight has at least partially vindicated her position.
In 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a scathing 512-page report showing that U.S. intelligence agencies had manipulated and manufactured intelligence to claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in order to justify going to war as part of America’s post-9/11 response.
Lee remembers how, “not so long ago,” she was in South Carolina campaigning for Kamala Harris when she received an unexpected apology.
“This white guy came up to me at an event. The security weren’t sure why he was coming up to me,” Lee says. “I greeted him and he started crying. He said, ‘I was one of those who sent you threats, I sent you hate mail. I brought my son here to say I’m sorry to apologize. I know know why you did it. You were right.’ “
Trying to be on the right side of history has long been Lee’s goal as a legislator and as a person, she says.
A native of El Paso, Texas, she grew up with racial justice front and center in her mind. “When I started school, I could not attend public schools because I was Black. I couldn’t go to the Plaza Theatre downtown,” Lee says.
Lee married young, divorcing her first husband before the age of 20, and went on to attend college (Mills College and later, University of California, Berkeley, for her masters) all while also being a single mom of two boys receiving public assistance.
She cut her teeth in activism as a volunteer for the Black Panther Party (a group once feared by America’s white majority but whose work has been re-evaluated in recent years) but entered politics somewhat begrudgingly, as she explains in the documentary.
What changed her mind was when, as president of the Mills College Black Student Union, she invited Rep. Shirley Chisholm — the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress — to speak on campus. Eventually, Lee went on to work on Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign, serving as her delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
Lee paid homage to her late mentor — who died in 2005 — at the historic inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris, when she wore Chisholm’s pearls to the ceremony.
Chisholm is “constantly” on her mind all these years later.
“On key votes and when I think that the other side is going to win — [I can hear her say] ‘Remember, you’re a Black woman. These rules weren’t made for you and me. You’ve got to change the system.’ All the laws and rules were made to exclude people like myself,” Lee says.
Now the highest-ranking African American woman in Congress, Lee is helping to rewrite some of those rules and inspiring a new generation of lawmakers — including “Squad” members like Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom are featured in the new documentary and say they look to Lee as something of a guiding light in their own careers.
Despite her accomplishments and influence, Lee keeps her career in perspective.
“I have seen and been with people who have fought — and died — just to break through for equal opportunities and to deal with systemic racism and gender inequality,” she says. “If they can do it — Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, all of the Black women who came before me who had many more dire circumstances they had to live with than myself — If they could do it, I mean certainly I can make a contribution during my lifetime to try to help to move the ball forward for justice and equality.”
Her work isn’t complete, of course, and Lee acknowledges the political divisions that have been ever-present in the country in recent years.
Still, she says she remains optimistic about the direction of the country. She has to.
“I think we are in a defining moment now, but I believe in the people of this country,” she says. “The wake up call is here now — look at what’s happening with Roe v. Wade … I think that’s going to galvanize a lot of people who never would have thought about politics. I have to be hopeful, otherwise you just give up.”