“I have to keep hope”

Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images Barbara Lee

Barbara Lee says she never sought the national attention often given to 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 the spotlight as the subject of a new documentary premiering this week.

Lee tells PEOPLE that she was largely an “unintended subject” in Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, which premiered on Starz on Tuesday. But filmmaker Abby Ginzberg was “persevering”.

The end result, Lee says, was a “humiliating” look at his life and career.

“[I’m just trying to] make sure people who work like me don’t have to go through all the challenges I had to go through,” she says. “So I’m going to fight to change this county, and the politics and the world.”

(“I mean, that sounds a little idealistic,” she adds, “but that’s really how I feel about my job.”)

Never miss a story – subscribe to PEOPLEfree weekly newsletter from to get the biggest news of the week delivered to your inbox every Friday.

BARBARA LEE: Speaking Truth to Power

Greenwich Entertainment Barbara Lee

Lee may have attracted the most attention of her career in 2001, when she was the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization to use military force against terrorists following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Public sentiment at the time was largely in favor of the war, but Lee was convinced that the authorization granted the president too broad powers to invade at a time when the facts were not yet clear.

Lee received countless phone calls and even death threats following that vote — a time she called “horrible” — but, for many, the hindsight at least partially vindicated her position.

In 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a scathing 512-page report showing that US intelligence agencies had manipulated and fabricated intelligence to claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in order to justify war as part of the American response after 9/11. .

RELATED: Inside the case of a lawmaker who discovered intimate photos of her were circulating online

Barbara Lee

Karl Mondon/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images Barbara Lee

Lee recalls how “not too 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. Security didn’t know why he was coming up to me,” Lee said. “I greeted him and he started crying. He said, ‘I’m one of those who sent you threats, I sent you hate messages. I brought my son here to Tell him I’m sorry for apologizing. I know why you did. . You were right.’ “

Trying to be on the right side of history has long been Lee’s goal as a lawmaker and as a person, she said.

Originally from El Paso, Texas, she grew up with racial justice at the center of her concerns. “When I started school, I couldn’t go to public schools because I was black. I couldn’t go to the Plaza Theater downtown,” Lee said.

RELATED: Why Vice President Kamala Harris’ Royal Purple Inauguration Day outfit is symbolic to many

Lee married young, divorced her first husband before she was 20, and continued to attend college (Mills College and later the University of California, Berkeley, for her master’s degree) while being a single mother of two boys on 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 reassessed in recent years) but entered politics somewhat reluctantly, 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 continued to work on Chisholm’s presidential campaign in 1972, serving as a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention.

Barbara Lee

D. Ross Cameron/MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images Barbara Lee

Lee paid tribute to his late mentor – who died in 2005 – during the historic inauguration of the vice president Kamala Harris, when she wore the pearls of Chisholm at the ceremony.

Chisholm is “constantly” on his mind all these years later.

“On key votes and when I think 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 have to change the system. All the laws and rules were made to exclude people like me,” Lee says.

Now the highest-ranking African-American woman in Congress, Lee is helping rewrite some of those rules and inspiring a new generation of lawmakers — including “Squad” members like Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are both featured in the new documentary and say they look to Lee as something of a guide in their own careers.

Despite his accomplishments and influence, Lee keeps his career in perspective.

RELATED: Rep. Barbara Lee wears MP Shirley Chisholm’s groundbreaking beads on Inauguration Day

“I’ve seen and been around people who have fought — and died — just to break through for equal opportunity and to fight systemic racism and gender inequality,” she says. “If they can do it – Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, all the black women who have come before me and had to live with a lot more difficult circumstances than I have – If they could do it, I mean definitely I can make a contribution in my lifetime to try and help move the ball for justice and equality.”

His work is not done, of course, and Lee acknowledges the political divisions that have been pervasive in the country in recent years.

Still, she says she remains optimistic about the direction of the country. She must.

“I think we’re in a watershed moment now, but I believe in the people of this country,” she says. “The revival is here now – look what happens with Roe vs. Wade … I think it will galvanize a lot of people who would never have thought of politics. I have to keep hope, otherwise you give up.”

Comments are closed.