Tag Archives: political documentary

The Power of One

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power

by Brandon Thomas

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power is a rapturous celebration of the long-time Congresswoman from Oakland, California. Instead of being an issues-driven fluff piece, Speaking Truth to Power is a movie that seeks to understand how Lee’s history and circumstances led her to becoming the woman she is today. 

Barbara Lee hasn’t become a household name like Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Despite her minor anonymity on the national political stage, the film puts a spotlight on how Lee has managed to get meaningful legislation passed while holding onto her core beliefs. It’s part of what has made Lee so endearing to her constituents, other House members and senators, and to her own family.

So much of the early portion of Speaking Truth to Power focuses on Lee’s solitary post-9/11 vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. By being the lone member of the House of Representatives to vote against the Act, Lee put a target on her back during a fraught time in American politics. Through leaning into this part of Lee’s life so early in the film, Director Abby Ginzberg sets the stage to show how the Congresswoman has always been that principled in her morals and convictions.   

Of course, the film is chock full of glowing testimonials from the creme de la creme of American political and activist life: John Lewis, Van Jones, Cory Booker and Danny Glover, just to name a few. These vignettes never threaten to overtake the film, but add flavorful bits to Lee’s ongoing story from childhood through her career in Washington.

The real meat and potatoes of the film comes from Lee herself. So much of her story is told from her point of view as the filmmakers follow her from Washington, D.C., to her district in California, and even back to El Paso, Texas, where she grew up in the shadow of Jim Crow. The personal side of Lee’s story isn’t given the same attention that her professional side is, and that feels almost by design. Lee isn’t shy about her struggles as a single mother, or the failings of past relationships. But she isn’t looking to let those past hardships define her either. 

By the end of Speaking Truth to Power, it’s apparent that Barbara Lee deserves to be included in the pantheon of those aforementioned household names. Not for her political shrewdness though. No, Barbara Lee should be remembered for her convictions. 

Year of the Woman?


by Hope Madden

We make up 50% of the earth’s population and 23% of the House (which is, disappointingly, an all-time high). Why is it so hard for women to take our statistically rightful place in representation?

Hilary Bachelder’s sly doc Represent eyeballs that struggle for three Midwestern women: Detroit’s indefatigable Myya Jones; Evanston, Illinois’s beleaguered Julia Cho; and Granville, Ohio’s very own Bryn Bird.

All three women are looking to make a difference in local politics. All three face more obstacles than simply their sex: Jones is only 23-years-old at the end of filming; Cho is a Republican in a highly Democratic area; Bird’s the only progressive ever to run in her township. And then there are the more obvious hurdles: Jones is a Black woman; Cho is Korean American.

It is fascinating to witness which of these particular concerns the voting populace feels most comfortable overtly reacting to and which require veiled swipes and sideways glances. When a woman at one of Cho’s stump speeches tells the politician that her children don’t mind Common Core because they are “Oriental, and all Orientals do well in school,” it’s hard not to gasp aloud.

Bechelder’s footage never glamorizes its leads. Their candor, idealism and even their missteps and shortcomings as politicians are on display, giving the film a transparency and authenticity.

Represent is most fascinating when it quietly unveils the final and most insurmountable obstacle, which is the candidates’ own parties. Is she the good kind of progressive? A real Republican? The right kind of Black woman?

And if you have to change who you are to be heard, do you really have anything left to say that’s worth hearing?

Cho, Jones and Bird are up for the battle.

“Democracy requires engagement,” Bird tells Bachelder. “We need people to fight for it.”


Santiago, Italia

by Hope Madden

History repeats itself.  This often frustrating, even tragic theme has powered many films and documentaries over the years, including Nanni Moretti’s Santiago, Italia.  

An account of Chile’s 1973 military coup, Santiago, Italia approaches its history with a fascinating, character-driven approach. An opening news footage montage sets the stage—no timeline or voiceover narration detail events for you.

The people of Chile democratically elect a socialist president. Chileans are excited and hopeful. Big business and the military is not. Planes fly low over the city. Bombs drop. Hope turns to terror.

Moretti, 6-time nominee and 2001 winner of the Palme d’Or, isn’t exactly known as a documentarian. His instincts as a storyteller supersede, even complement, his disregard for the standard practice of documentary. The result is a slice of global, political, human life that bristles with passion and indignation.

Moretti’s main characters are a handful of Chilean exiles, persecuted and, in several cases, tortured for their political views and later exiled to Italy. As moving as it is to see emotion sneak up on someone remembering a moment now nearly fifty years old, witnessing someone recount their own torture with such a clear eye and lack of emotion is even more unsettling.

The filmmaker spends time with former military as well. Among others, he interviews imprisoned war criminal Raul Iturriaga, who believes the two sides should just forgive and forget. Irked at the direction the interview takes, Iturriaga challenges Moretti’s impartiality.

Moretti corrects him.

“Yo no soy imparcial.”  

And why should he be? With Santiago, Italy, Moretti recounts a story of two countries bound by a common desire for freedom from tyranny. As he sees that history replay itself once again, he believes that this is a story that bears repeating.


Where’s My Roy Cohn?

by Hope Madden

There’s a tendency in horror cinema, after a villain has established his evil nature in a film or two, to turn the story around and find out what made him a monster. In that vein, Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? is the madman’s origin story.

Horror fan that I am, I’ve still never been intrigued by what made Jason Jason, why Michael Myers was driven to murder, what caused Leatherface to don the mask. But it turns out, this horror story is more about the sequel, Son of Cohn.

“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” is a tantrum yelped by Donald Trump, unhappy about his attorney general at the time. And the title speaks volumes, about the kind of attack dog Cohn had been as a lawyer, and about the toxic legacy he’s left behind, right down to the oval office.

A fastidious student of the unlikely individual and his or her cultural impact, Tyrnauer made fascinating docs for years about little known citizens with big stories (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood and Citizen Jane among them). And though his latest certainly bears some of the markings of Tyrnauer’s previous films, the only person who saw Roy Cohn as a little guy with big ideas was Roy Cohn.

 It’s tough to overstate the ruthless, amoral impact Cohn has had on American politics and culture. Though Tyrnauer shows traces of compassion when underlining Cohn’s self-hating behaviors (whether as a Jew or a homosexual), the filmmaker’s assessment of his cancerous affect is evident.

Cohn was the prosecuting attorney who pushed the Rosenbergs toward the electric chair before he became McCarthy’s advisor, mouth piece and thug. Then on to New York, where his mafia entanglements (he represented John Gotti, Tony Salerno and Carmine Galante) only aided in his close professional and personal relationship with Donald Trump.

A bizarre connector between the worlds of Studio 54, the mafia and the Archdiocese of New York, Cohn’s party photos articulate some kind of bacchanal populated by members of each of these affluent, influential and decadent groups. It would be impressive it weren’t so ominous and seedy.

He also owned the news, dictating stories to the New York Post from his kitchen table and bringing Rupert Murdoch to the oval office with his own dear friend, Ronald Reagan.

Roy Cohn is dead, but as Where’s My Roy Cohn? makes dismayingly clear is that his ghost still haunts us.

From the Corners to the Council, Baltimore under a Microscope

Charm City

by Matt Weiner

If the Midwest is often treated as America’s test market for new products, Baltimore makes a good case as America’s stand-in for how our cities have been neglected, in ways both passive and pernicious. With Charm City, Marilyn Ness sketches the big picture by zooming in on one city neighborhood.

Ness centers the documentary around those most affected by the violence and lack of opportunity in the city, spending time on the streets with the irrepressible Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton. Mr. C runs a neighborhood community center, providing a mix of social services, inspirational sermons and a contagious hope that things must get better.

Also represented is the Baltimore Police Department, whose officers are buckling under constant overtime in an attempt to stem the record murder rate. Politicians get their due through the eyes of Brandon Scott, a reform-minded city councilman (and the youngest person elected to the position).

At first it seems like Ness’s framing is nuanced to a fault. She studiously highlights the interactions on all sides as an almost routine drudgery. Or as routine as life can be when you’re in a constant struggle for resources just to survive.

But haunting the periphery is the death of Freddie Gray, which took place just months before the film begins. Ness limits her interviews to the more optimistic and eager officials and officers, but even relatively benign interactions are impossible to separate from the wider conversations happening around criminal justice reform in cities and police departments all over the country.

As frustrating as it can be when Ness sticks to her granular talking head shots, there’s a still a message—even if that message to viewers is often that you’re going to need to do some extra homework on this.

And it’s effective. It’s heartbreaking when the people on Mr. C’s block abruptly suffer the loss of one of their own. It’s bracing to hear them refuse to give up even though they feel like everyone else has abandoned them. It’s useful to see how city officials view doing the right thing, and how quickly that impulse crashes against a public health epidemic that cannot be theirs alone to fix.

There have been plenty of superb recent documentaries about criminal justice in America, including Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Erik Ljung’s The Blood Is at the Doorstep. Charm City probably shouldn’t be the only film to watch if you’re looking to go deeper on the subject, but it’s a fine and no less urgent place to start.