Now Playing! A Barbara Lee Doc at the Drive-In and Other Inspiring Tales

Congresswoman Barbara Lee in 'Truth to Power.' (Jewish Film Institute)

These days it feels like we’re in the middle of a Hitchcock movie. Hitch’s great innovation was to shock us with evil in broad daylight, then surround and compound the horror with mass complacency. Think of the predatory Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) chatting casually in a Santa Rosa sitting room in Shadow of a Doubt, or the equally charming serial killer Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) circling a travel agent in her office while London traffic bustles obliviously one floor below in Frenzy.

As they say in Whitechapel, if the metaphor fits, wear it. On the other hand, if your inclination is toward optimism, or better yet resistance, this week brings films to buoy your spirits.

Cinegogue Summer Days
July 16–19
West Wind Drive-Ins, online

Back in mid-April, the Jewish Film Institute announced the postponement of the annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival from late July to November. While the country steadily devolved day after idiotic day, the festival world sorted out a serviceable alternative to in-person screenings consisting of drive-ins, online viewing and live and prerecorded Q&As.

Cinegogue Summer Days opens July 16 with side-by-side screenings at Concord’s West Wind Solano Drive-In of Abby Ginzberg’s eagerly awaited Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me and Oren Jacoby’s On Broadway, a behind-the-curtain salute to the Great White Way and, implicitly, New York City’s resilience, (On Broadway also plays the San Jose’s West Wind Capitol Drive-In.) Remarkably, these films and the new restoration of the 1919 Sholem Aleichem adaptation Broken Barriers on July 18 are the only events requiring a paid ticket.

Still from 'Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me.' (Jewish Film Insitute)

After a woozy opening, Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me snaps into focus with an in-depth recap of the East Bay Congresswoman’s gutsy dissenting vote in the post-9/11 rush to give President George W. Bush broad war powers. Every year thereafter, Lee introduced a resolution to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force and in 2019—in both a validation of the rightness of her vote and a reflection of her ability to win support across the ideological spectrum—the House passed her bill.

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Years earlier, though, Lee enlisted the NAACP to help change the process at San Fernando High in Southern California so the entire student body chose the cheerleaders instead of a cozy committee. (Lee tried out and made the squad, if you had any doubt.) Nonetheless, Lee comes across in the irresistible Truth to Power neither as a firebrand nor a charismatic leader but as an Everywoman connected to her constituents and committed to achieving funding and results for the poor, the paroled and so many other Americans who don’t have Congress’ ear.

Still from 'The Painted Bird.' (IFC Films)

The Painted Bird
Opens July 17
VOD

For its first hour, Václav Marhoul’s stark black-and-white adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s novel unfolds in the unpopulated rural backwaters of an unnamed Eastern European country at some unspecified time between the Middle Ages and today. The filmmaker’s cryptic approach allows the saga of a sensitive, vulnerable boy on the road, who encounters all manner of prejudice, casual cruelty (to animals and people) and exploitation, to suggest the plight of present-day refugees. Or, for those in a COVID-19 depression or Cormac McCarthy loop, the collapse of civilization.

In due time soldiers from the Second World War turn up, and we gain our bearings. But the boy does not, and we experience the events as he perceives them, in fragments and snapshots like clues—or better yet, a jigsaw puzzle without the cover picture. The puzzle’s meaning doesn’t become clear until enough pieces are put together. In this regard, and in its artfulness and power, The Painted Bird belongs with the great poetic works of children at war like Diamonds in the Night, Come and See and Run, Boy, Run.

The Painted Bird, which premiered last fall at Venice and was the Czech Republic’s official submission for the Academy Award for International Feature Film (it was shortlisted for the Oscar, but wasn’t nominated), presents a bleak but far from nihilistic view of human nature. To those who might find my description (and the film itself) depressing, is it not inspiring that Marhoul could raise the money, first of all, and that he was compelled to create a work of art from such darkness? That is also the boy’s challenge too, ultimately.

We Are the Radical Monarchs
July 20
POV on KQED

If it’s inspiration you crave, the Oakland girls of color we meet in Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s vibrant documentary will feed your fire. These tweens have developed a strong sense of self not via the typical troop’s old-school accomplishments of knot-tying and fire building but through social-justice activities and grassroots activism.

We Are the Radical Monarchs follows co-founders and working moms Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest over three years as they develop and practice strategies to empower their group members. They are so successful, and there’s so much demand for a program to engage youth of color, that the duo is inundated with requests to start chapters around the country.

One of the key takeaways from the doc is that a great way for young people to build confidence and skills is to guide them to think beyond themselves. Allying and collaborating with others and being part of a movement is powerful stuff. If you had any concerns about the next generation taking up the torch from Barbara Lee one day, We Are the Radical Monarchs will make you rest easy.