Exclusive Interview with Barbara Lee and Abby Ginzberg on ‘Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power’

With “Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power,” filmmaker Abby Ginzberg has given us one of the most memorable feature length documentaries of 2021. It introduces us to American politician and social worker Barbara Lee who currently serves as a United States Representative for California’s 13th congressional district, and this is someone we should now about. She has served in Congress for many years now and remains a strong voice for human rights, peace, and economic and racial justice in America and around the world. As Barbara’s story unfolds, we learn of her many experiences which shaped her life and beliefs such as volunteering for the Black Panther Party and escaping an abusive relationship. We also get testimonials from various politicians, journalists and other well-known individuals such as Cory Booker, the late John Lewis, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Van Jones, Danny Glover and Alice Walker, all of whom cite her as a tremendous inspiration to them and others.

More importantly, Ginzberg shows how Lee has remained steadfast and true to her beliefs to where she is not worried about popularity. While politicians mostly vote along party lines and are more concerned with their corporate donors instead of their constituents, Lee is not one to merely obey those in power. This is made especially clear when we see her oppose George W. Bush’s resolution granting the President unlimited war-making authority as it did not include much in the way of specifics and was, as she put it, “too broad.” In addition, she was the only representative in Congress to vote against this resolution. While everyone else was beating the war drum, Lee did not succumb to the cries for vengeance as she issued this stern warning to her colleagues: “Let us not become the evil we deplore.”

I got to speak with Ginzberg and Lee recently about the making of this documentary. Ginzberg herself has been a filmmaker for over 30 years, and her movies are about tackling discrimination and the legal profession. Her works include “Soul of Justice” which is about federal district judge Thelton Henderson, “And Then They Came for Us” about the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and “Soft Vengeance” which documents the life of anti-apartheid freedom fighter Albie Sachs. With “Speaking Truth to Power,” she is keen in making Barbara Lee’s existence known to the world at large.

During this interview, the two discussed why this is not meant to be a chronological or linear documentary, Lee expressed her thoughts on President Joe Biden’s recent extension on the moratorium for renters, and they talked about what needs to be done about homelessness and the war on drugs in America.

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power” will arrive in theaters on August 20, 2021. In Los Angeles, it will be playing at Laemmle’s Royal Theater in West Los Angeles, and there will be a Q&A with Lee and her son following the 4:30 pm showing on August 21st. In Northern California, it will be showing at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and at the Roxie in San Francisco. Barbara will appear at the Roxie after the Thursday showing on August 26th. It will play in theaters for one week, after which it will be available to stream on Amazon and iTunes.

Please feel free to check out the interview below as well as the trailer for the documentary. And remember, stay woke!

Jim Kirkwood, An Extraordinary Mentor to Many

WRITER’S NOTE: I wrote this article exactly ten years ago in the year 2010.

It was just another day at the office for me, staring at a computer and taking calls, when I got a message from my good friend Shane whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He informed me our acting mentor from Diablo Valley College, Jim Kirkwood, had passed away at 5 a.m. this morning. For the past year or so, Jim had been fighting cancer and had to endure an operation to remove a tumor which lasted several hours. Hearing this news was a blow to me and everyone else who had the unique privilege of having taken an acting class taught by him.

Right now, my heart feels so heavy and I am wondering why tears are not coming out of my eyes. I want to feel this loss fully for Jim had such a profound effect on my life and so many others in Northern California. For many years he was an acting teacher at Diablo Valley College, and I enrolled in several of his classes during my time there before I transferred to the University of California at Irvine. Much had been said about him and how hard it was to get into his classes, and that he had studied with some of the greatest acting teachers including Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. For those truly serious about acting, you could not pass up any course he taught.

When it came to my first class with Jim, I was nervous to say the least. The man was treated like a legend in the area, and it felt incredibly intimidating to be in his presence. Giving out grades was never a priority for him, and his one rule which stood out among others was if you missed three of his classes without informing him as to why, you were out. This was back in the day when those strict guidelines actually unnerved me.

Anyway, I came to this new place of learning straight out of high school where I did many plays and considered myself a really good actor. Of course, the whole thing about acting back then is that when you’re onstage and you have nothing to say, get off. That first day with Jim, he immediately gave you a sense of what acting was really about. It was about living in the moment, acting with purpose and having an objective in mind. You could not think too much about the outcome of the scene you’re in because it would just take away from the thing you are fighting for. Every character has something to go for, and this is what empowers the actor through the entire show. Even when you are onstage and have nothing to say, he made you see listening is a big part of performing as well.

Among the lessons I remember the most from his classes was when he explained you did not need to have preconceived ideas of how to play a scene or say a line. It was never about pushing for some grand emotion which spelled out award-winning to the audience; it was about letting the emotion come to you while you pursue your objective. To just deliver a line in a preconceived way would just kill the moment. You would just come across as lifeless and vacant, and your scene partner would suffer as a result.

Jim demonstrated the danger of preconceiving what you will do beforehand by giving different readings of the line “get the hell out of here!” The first one was angry, the next was dismissive, the one after that had him laughing like he was talking to a friend, I think he made it look like he was crying in another and so on. By the end, everyone in the class including myself were laughing because he made it all look ridiculous, and it was. By getting stuck in this way of acting, you were never really connected to the scene or those you are working with onstage.

Sooner or later, we came to see that we get our performance from the other actor in the scene. While this became more abundantly clear to me years later while I was a student at Second City, this lesson really originated in Jim’s classes. There was no “me, me, me, me, me, me” in his class because we were all put on the same level. No one was necessarily better than the other, so no prima donnas were ever present (thank goodness for that by the way).

For those new to Jim’s classes, his regimen was to break us down and get rid of all those high school emoting habits many of us had been stuck with for far too long. He could be brutally honest with you, but it was never in a Simon Cowell kind of way (I would have dropped out of his class were it the case). He wanted you to see what you did wrong and how you could improve on it for next time. Feelings did get hurt from time to time and our self-confidence took several direct hits at what seemed like point blank range, but it was never done out of spite or cold-heartedness. Simply put, we had a lot to learn and the road we were on was designed to be a long one and for good reason.

Of couse, he was quoted one time as saying the following, “Getting talent out of this person is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!”

Another great lesson he taught us which has never left my mind was when he did the “pick up the pen” bit. With this, he went back to when he was an acting student himself and being taught by Lee Strasberg. Now Lee instructed him to pick up a pen which was laying there on the stage. Since he did not tell Jim how he should pick it up, Jim just walked up on stage like he was doing a happy skip across the park and just stumbled upon the pen. We were all laughing hysterically as he looked at the pen with a giddy look on his face, playing up the emotion of the scene as he picked it up.

Lee, however, was not impressed, and Jim said he was made to put it back up on the stage and pick it up again. This time he moved stealthily around and looked like he was about to steal the pen. In this moment, he made it look like he was waiting for the perfect moment and then found it by absconding with the pen just like Indiana Jones took off with the golden idol in the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Lee again shook his head and told Jim he was still doing it wrong and to do it again.

Now Jim came onto the stage as if his leg were broken, and he was limping over to the pen. At this point, he tried, and failed, to make it look realistic when he was struggling to reach for the pen despite the injury he was faking miserably. Once again, he got the pen and went offstage. It was at this point that Lee was really losing his patience with him:

“Jim, did you hear anything of what I just said?!”

“Yeah, but what am I doing wrong?”

“I told you to pick up the pen!”

“I DID!”

“Well I didn’t tell you to go all over the place doing this big act around it, did I?”

“So, what do you want me to do?”

“JIM, JUST PICK UP THE PEN!!!”

“Fine!”

So, Jim just walked straight up to the pen and picked it up, and then he walked off the stage as quickly as he got on it. After that, the audience of his fellow students, one of whom was James Dean, applauded him loudly. Jim said he did not understand what the big deal was, and Lee, who also applauded, explained it to him:

“You followed through with the objective. You didn’t think about it, you just did it and with the same level of energy. You didn’t need to put on a big show, you just needed to just pick up the pen. In that moment, that was your only objective. This is the difference between a good performer and a great actor.”

This last sentence has stayed with me to this very day. It is easy to get up and put up a big act just to get laughs from all your friends, but it is another thing to be the character instead of just playing one. You never play the emotion, you play the action, and the emotion will come to you.

I went through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout my time in his classes. Back then I was trying to get all my general education courses out of the way so that, when I transferred to a four-year university, I could concentrate solely on my major. As a result, I did not always give his classes my full-on attention, and it did lead to me having a nervous breakdown one day. It felt like I was failing the class and myself, and while my fellow classmates were there to console me, I was a complete wreck. Jim took pity on me though, gave me a hug, and he always had everyone give their scene partners a hug before and after a scene, and urged me to not be so hard on myself.

But in the end, through all that emotional agony, we each came into our own and got to have that one moment where all the training and character work we did paid off. We had gotten to where we had studied the scene and memorized our lines so many times, we were no longer thinking about what we were doing. All that mattered was we went after our objective. Nothing else mattered. Getting a compliment from Jim was not always easy, but when you got it, you knew you damn well earned it. When we each got that moment, it wasn’t just a victory for us, but for the class as well. Each of us wanted the other person to succeed.

On the last day of Jim’s Advanced Acting class, we all chipped in and got him a plaque thanking him for all he had done for us. He looked at it and immediately burst into tears. It meant so much that we did this for him, and it was a symbol of the kind of people we were becoming thanks in large part to the time we spent with him. Everyone in the class came around to give him a hug, not wanting him to cry. Another guy, I can’t remember his name, offered him a bottle of scotch but then realized he had already drunk it.

In the end, Jim’s classes were never about becoming a star or a celebrity. His classes were about how an actor must live life to the fullest and be serious about their art and their individual craft. It was about getting better and taking on new challenges throughout our lifetimes, and to never be complacent as artists. The life of an artist, be it an actor or director, is never meant to be an easy one. But then again, how else could you learn and grow? It’s like what my brother keeps telling me, “If life were easy, no one would bother showing up.”

I loved how I got to make Jim laugh. I was in his directing class and did this one scene where I used magazine covers with gorgeous women on them as stand ins for a couple of characters. He got a kick out of the fact one of them was an issue of Playboy Magazine with Pamela Anderson, and he jokingly asked me if he could borrow it. Being the embarrassingly literal-minded person I was back then, I thought he was being serious and handed it to him earnestly. Along with the class, he was in utter hysterics.

Then there was another time where we were working on scenes and voicing out what was going through our minds in order to keep us in the moment. Be it if you didn’t know your line or were frustrated and had to vent it somehow, we needed to be there fully and not let all these distractions cloud our ultimate goals. For me, my chief distraction involved a comedy album I bought a few days earlier from a nearby record store. It got to where I could no longer resist it:

“DAMN IT!! I GOT STEVE MARTIN’S NATIVE AMERICAN SINGING GOING THROUGH MY HEAD!!!!”

Jim got a kick out of that and would never let me forget it. It’s nice to have such memories of him this way.

Now Jim is gone, and this loss is deeply felt by all those who were lucky to be in his presence. I write this with a heavy heart, and it will still take some time to accept the fact I won’t get to see or talk with him ever again. It didn’t matter how old he was, he left us way too soon. The last time I saw him was at a Christmas party with friends from his class, and he dropped by and was endlessly interested in what we were all up to. His words of kindness meant a lot to me and I will never forget them.

I thank him for all those lessons on character development, understanding a script and the character’s place in it fully, and of the passion he brought out of all of us. We did not just come out of his class as better actors; we came out as better people. Much of what he taught still comes back to me every once in a while, so I know I am still growing as an artist.

I miss you Jim. Why did you have to leave us now? Leonard Cohen was right; this is no way to say goodbye. But what you taught will live on through all of us for you touched so many lives, and everything you taught will be passed on to future generations. You will live on with us always.

I still wish you were here though. It feels very empty here without you.

Six Miles for Scott Boliver

Scott Boliver in New York

The wretched year that was 2018 has now vanished into the annals of history, and 2019 is here with the promise of hope and better things. This is a wave I am eager to ride for as long as humanly possible. It also brought the Pablove runners back to Griffith Park in Burbank for our first run of the new year. We were all out of town for the holidays, and now we are back to burn off all those calories we willingly put on. I could say I was forced to do so, but this would be a flagrant lie.

The first run of the year also serves as a memorial to one of the greatest marathon coaches you could ever hope to have, Scott Boliver. Scott coached us during our Team to End AIDS (T2EA) days while he fought a brave battle against cancer, and he called this battle “slay the dragon.” For the record, he did beat cancer to a bloody pulp, but his body still gave out and we lost him six years ago. I was devastated to learn of his loss as was everybody else, and it felt so unfair. Heaven may be lacking in angels, but it can’t be lacking that many.

This memorial run always brings out past runners who may not be training this season, but they are still infinitely eager to pay their respects to Scott. Among them was JC Fernandez, another marathon coach from my T2EA days who proved to me he still reads my articles on The Ultimate Rabbit when he told me, “Hey, you’re here on time!” Yes, I arrived at Griffith Park 15 minutes before 7:00 a.m. in the past instead of showing up after announcements by Coach Joaquin have been made or when all the runners have taken off before my, I’m assuming, eager arrival.

Also showing up for this important occasion were Stephen, Virginia, Cristie and Jody, and it is always nice to see friends from the past. Another person I was thrilled to see arrive was Gene who has the kind of infinite enthusiasm we all want to bottle up for a profit. I also would like to add he arrived in a Tesla. This is the kind of car powered by electricity, but knowing Gene, he could power it up with his infinite enthusiasm. Heck, he could power it for years!

But the most important guests in attendance were Scott’s parents and his wife Dolly. We went over to the tree planted in Scott’s honor where Dolly thanked us for showing up, and she did say this while bursting into tears to where Scott’s parents lent their support to her as she fought her way through sadness to talk to us. Those who knew Scott loved and found him to be one of the most inspirational human beings who ever walked the face of the earth, and the fact he was taken from us at far too young an age still feels deeply unfair.

Speaking of the tree, it has grown so much since the last training season. It doesn’t need much to keep it standing straight anymore. Just look at it.

As a result of the memorial, our run started a half hour late, and no one could blame me for that (LOL). This was a six-mile run for both the half and full marathoners, and it took us outside of Griffith Park and onto the asphalt streets and sidewalks in Burbank. For the most part it was a flat run, but then there was Fairview Avenue, the most deceptive of all hills.

Here’s the thing about Fairview Avenue; from a distance it does not look like a hill as the street appears quite level. But once you run up it, your legs quickly realize you are going uphill and get really mad as a result. My legs were telling me, “You lied! This is a hill! You insane bastard!” As for my knees, they gave up arguing with me a long time ago.

Once I managed to haul my ass up to the top, and it always takes much longer than it ever should, I caught up with Coach Joaquin who was all smiles, and he pointed out where the turn around point was which only a few yards away. Joaquin then assured me it was all downhill from there, and that phrase always sounds so sweet.

As usual, I was the last one to cross the finish line. But for the record, I did three maintenance runs this past week instead of the two we are asked to do, and this was while I was on vacation in the Bay Area. Even before I made it back to Los Angeles, I was working hard to burn off all those calories from the delicious food I feasted on. My dad loves to cook!

Next week will has us Pablove runners running 16 miles. Now we are getting serious! If I don’t get any form of exercise from now until next Saturday, I am a full-blown masochist.

FUNDRAISING UPDATE: As you all know, I am running this particular Los Angeles Marathon in support of The Pablove Foundation, a non-profit determined to find a cure for pediatric cancer. To date, I have raised $531 towards my fundraising goal of $1,500. It’s a new year, so don’t hesitate to make a tax-deductible donation before the end of it. Click here to find out how you can donate.

See also:

Scott Boliver, Gone But Never Forgotten

‘Fruitvale Station’ Puts a Human Face on a Tragic Shooting

Fruitvale Station movie poster

It’s a strange and cruel irony “Fruitvale Station” opened in theaters the same week George Zimmerman was found not guilty of shooting Trayvon Martin. Like Martin, Oscar Grant was a young African American male whose life was cut short under needlessly tragic circumstances. On the night of January 31, 2008, Oscar was traveling home with his girlfriend and their friends on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) when a fight broke out on the train which he gets caught up in. When the train arrives at the station of the movie’s title, Oscar was pulled off it by BART police officers, and one of them, either accidentally or intentionally (depending on who you ask) shot him. He died the following day, and his death brought about protests and a call for justice.

The cases of Martin and Grant appear to illustrate that, despite strides we have made in race relations, it’s still not safe to be a young black man in America. Now “Fruitvale Station” is not a movie out to offer a solution to this continuing problem, but it does put a human face on it. After watching it, Grant will no longer seem like a mere statistic to anyone.

The movie follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) on the last day of his life as he goes about his business while trying to survive in an unforgiving world. He still lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in a rundown part of the Bay Area, and this is despite the fact Sophina knows he cheated on her. But regardless his wayward ways, Oscar is clearly dedicated to taking care of them both and in doing what he can to give them a better life.

“Fruitvale Station” is the first feature film for director Ryan Coogler, and he made it because he wanted people to get to know Oscar as a human being instead of just another name in a newspaper. Having seen the film, I can honestly say he succeeded in doing so. Not once does Coogler try to sanctify Oscar or water him down for an easier movie going experience. Coogler presents Oscar warts and all, and while he is far from perfect, we come to respect him for what he’s trying to do with his life on this fateful day.

We see Oscar trying to get his supermarket job back even though his boss isn’t about to rehire him, and it’s the first time we see Oscar’s hair trigger temper come to life. His mission now and throughout this fateful day is to provide for his family. Of course, this may lead to him selling drugs to help pay the rent and put food on the table, the same thing which landed him in prison. While his desire to lead a good life is strong, the lure of the criminal life and the money it can generate for him keeps percolating below the surface.

Michael B. Jordan made a name for himself on television shows like “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” and he also appeared in the surprise hit movie “Chronicle.” His performance in “Fruitvale Station” is nothing short of sensational, and it made him one of the great breakout stars of 2013. It’s exhilarating to watch him as he takes Oscar from the joys of being a father to his frightening lows when he begs his mother not to leave him all alone. It’s a shame Jordan didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his performance, but then again 2013 was a year overflowing with great performances, many of which were bound to be left out.

Octavia Spencer gives another one of her great performances in this movie as well. As Wanda, she gives us a mother who tries to be strong for her wayward son, but who struggles with the reality she may need to keep her distance from him for his own good. This is not the typical clichéd mother character who goes through the usual motions of the parental ups and downs, but one who has stood up against the tides life has thrown at her and whose love for her son you never doubt for a second.

“Fruitvale Station” starts off with footage of the actual incident where Oscar was shot, but it cuts to black before we can see if the shooting was intentional or accidental. This gives the movie a certain tension as we know how things will end, but even as we get to that moment, there’s a still a part of us which wants this situation to have a different outcome. Even though the end of the movie is never in doubt, we desperately want him to survive the night and get home safe.

The other thing I really liked about this movie is how it showed us a part of the Bay Area many of us don’t get to see. I grew up in Northern California, and while much of it is not crime ridden, there are parts of it I dare not venture into. Like the brilliant documentary “Hoop Dreams,” it sheds a light on how African-Americans live and subsequently breaks a lot of the preconceptions many of us have about them.

There have been several other tragic incidents following what happened to Oscar Grant such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s always depressing to see how history keeps repeating itself despite our best attempts to learn from it. What makes “Fruitvale Station” so remarkable is it’s not out to give us glib answers on how to end the violence, but it instead puts a human face on a man who didn’t deserve to die. We hear about these stories in the news far too often, and they are usually shown to us with an unnecessary amount of bias. Both Coogler and Jordan have done a great service as they force us to see Oscar Grant as a person with strengths and flaws, and this makes “Fruitvale Station” one of the very best movies of 2013.

* * * * out of * * * *