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In 2001, California democratic representative Barbara Lee went down in history for being the lone congressperson to vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which gave President George W. Bush open-ended power to use military force in Afghanistan after Sept. 11. Now, just days after President Joe Biden ordered American withdrawal from the country and the Taliban overtook capital city Kabul, Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth To Power, a documentary following the congresswoman’s 20-plus-year-career, is coming to limited theaters and streaming (on Amazon and iTunes), with a significant focus on that momentous vote.
As the film premiered at Los Angeles’ Royal Laemmle theater on Friday for a week-long run, Congresswoman Lee spoke to THR about the situation in Afghanistan, the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom and hesitations for showing her life onscreen.
How did this documentary come together?
I give the credit to the filmmaker, Abby Ginzberg, because as I’ve said before, I was an unwilling subject. It took her twice as long to do this job. To this day, it’s like I never agreed to it, she just did it. She would show up and I was like, “What are you doing here?” But she did a great job because she connected the dots for people.
Why were you unwilling?
First of all, I’m doing real work. I’m an elected official, public service is what I’m about. Secondly, I didn’t want anybody to invade my privacy. As a public official, 98 percent of my life is public, so that 2 percent is like leave it alone. She was able to delve into a little bit of it because what she wanted to do was show how life experiences are used to help further public policies.
How was it to watch your life back like this?
Mixed feelings. I’m looking at the cinematography and the filmmaking, not me. It’s easier to do that. And it’s forced me to reflect on a lot in terms of just my work and what inspires me or what from my life experiences have been brought to what I’m doing today. So if it helps other people, other women, other Black women, women of color.
How is it to watch these political figures, like John Lewis and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, talk about you in such a positive light?
I work with these people every day and they’re people I look up to. The film was actually first released on my birthday at a drive in- theater on July 16 , and John died the next day, July 17. I was like “oh my God.” He was such a good friend of mine, a really good friend. The first time I saw him talking about me like that was on the big screen the day before he died, so that was pretty powerful and really sad for me. And the people who saw the movie that night on July 16 and he passed July 17, I’m sure that was a gut-wrenching moment.
A large focus of this film is you being the only Congressperson to vote against war in Afghanistan. How have you been feeling watching the news there this past week?
First, just the thought that this film is coming out the week of the withdrawal of forces and the evacuations is just really, in many ways, it’s bittersweet, it’s powerful, but it also reminds me of the fact that we can’t nation-build and there’s no military solution in Afghanistan. What I’m doing now, of course, is trying to help with the families. I have many in my district who are trying to get their families out. I chair the [House] subcommittee on appropriations that funds a lot of what’s taking place, making sure that we increase the number of special immigrant visas, raise the cap for refugees, figure out a way to work with countries surrounding Afghanistan for refugee resettlement. I’m really focused on people staying alive right now — Americans and Afghans and children and women and trying to figure out a path forward to protect women, their security and the gains they’ve made and what we do with the Taliban in power. It’s kind of a defining moment.
What has it been like reliving that vote from 20 years ago both with this documentary and the news?
It was very painful then and it’s very painful now. Not only reliving that vote in that moment [on Sept. 11] — so many people died during that moment. I was angry and sad, grieving and mourning, just like everyone else. My chief of staff Sandre Swanson, his cousin, Wanda Green, was a flight attendant on flight 93 and she went down, they took that plane down and I was sitting in the Capitol that day. I’m feeling a lot of the pain because now the evacuation, because of so many troops that we’ve lost, they did everything this country asked him to do. We’ve got to always remember you don’t send them in harm’s way unless we know, and I said that in my speech, what the exit strategy is, what the condition is, what the timeframe is.
And then the other thing is, I’m still trying to repeal those authorizations [in the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002] because Congress was totally — and that’s how I’m feeling also is like well, finally, maybe members of Congress will understand why I’m trying to repeal these because Congress has not been doing its job. We’ve been missing in action since 2001. It’s been used over and over and over again in countries that were not even connected to 9/11. And not to mention all the Afghans who died and who are refugees — staggering numbers.
President Biden has received lots of criticism for pulling out. What do you think about how it’s been handled?
Certainly, it hasn’t been an easy execution but given what has taken place, I think you see they’re getting on track. It’s a very difficult situation. I thought most of the planning would have been put into place, but lo and behold, something went wrong. We don’t know yet. We’re holding hearings: oversight hearings, intelligence hearings. We’ll figure out what happened because either it was faulty intelligence, no intelligence, may have had the Afghans and Taliban, the security forces, we don’t know what that collaboration if any, was. We’ve got to do a deep dive, we’ve got to learn a lot not only about what happened in the execution, but 20 years ago, recognize that we can’t nation-build. He was right in terms of withdrawal of the troops because if we had kept 2500 troops there with the Taliban moving in, in 20 years he would have had to put in thousands more and be in the same place, if not worse, in 20 more years. So he was right, he did the absolute right thing. We’ve got to focus on getting everybody out.
The recall election of Gavin Newsom is also underway in California, what are your thoughts on that?
We’ve got to vote no on the recall. Do not be fooled behind any of these republicans, this is a Donald Trump republican play. They want to have someone elected the governor in California who does not reflect California values. California is a progressive democratic state and they’ve used this opportunity to try to demonize the governor and to try to do everything they could do to get a foothold into California. It’s very dangerous. The issue around women’s reproductive rights, women’s rights in general; budget priorities, childcare, health care, the climate — we’re the greenest state in the country and to have a republican governor roll back all those initiatives. I’m working every day to try to get people to understand the ballot and that is just vote no on the recall. If you stay home or if you don’t vote, either mail-in or go vote, then that gives the other side the vote, the republicans and these are some scary people. This is the only war I support.
After more than 20 years in Congress, how have you seen American politics change?
I’ve seen more awareness now in terms of systemic racism. I have a bill, HR19, to establish a commission on truth and racial healing transformation. Over 40 countries have established these commissions after genocide, crimes against humanity and slavery. These commissions are to bring forth the issues that these terrible, horrific crimes against humanity have caused and the impact. We’ve never dealt with the Middle Passage, the plight of African Americans who were enslaved for over 250 years. To deal with systemic racism today, you have to have this moment of truth, so I’m working really hard and I’ve seen a shift where people now are beginning to understand why, as well as reparations to repair the damage. When you see Mr. George Floyd getting killed, when you see the COVID pandemic disproportionately impacting Black and brown people, a lot of people don’t realize it’s directly related to the Middle Passage and to the enslavement of Africans in this country.
So I’ve seen a shift in understanding but we’ve got a long way to go because you have white supremacy and Trump-ites and domestic terrorism has been the top threat in this country. So we’re seeing this crisis coming together now. It’s a very dangerous time. We can get past it if people begin to understand that violence is not an option; we have to work to try to heal this country, but you can’t do it until you tell the truth, until people understand what the deal is.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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