Barbara Lee In ‘Shirley’ Film: Where Is She Now?


The character of Barbara Lee is based on the real-life politician who met Shirley Chisholm for the very first time during her college days. Christina Jackson played the part on the screen, and we got to know how desperately Barbara wanted to change how things were done, though she was a bit confused as to how to take the first step. Barbara believed that Chisholm’s journey was not only an inspiration for her but also for all those women who were suppressed by the patriarchal society. So, let’s find out how Barbara started her political career and how being a part of Shirley’s campaign became a huge learning curve for her. 

Spoiler Alert

When did Barbara Lee meet Shirley? 

Barbara Lee was studying at Mills College when she met Shirley for the very first time. In real life, too, Lee joined Shirley’s campaign and worked for her, as she believed that the latter would become a catalyst for change. At the end of the film, we saw that the real-life Barbara Lee told the audience the kind of impact Shirley’s career had on the destiny of black women in the United States of America. At that point in time, in the mid-seventies, Shirley didn’t know that she was going to be idolized by generations to come. Shirley was only fighting the elections because she didn’t believe herself, or any woman, for that matter, to be any less than their male counterparts. She wanted to show the world that, in the times to come, they would have to give equal opportunity to women. She wanted to prove that the position of power was not the birthright of white men. 

When Barbara first met Shirley, she knew that she wanted to do something, but she was confused about what she could do for the betterment of her nation. Barbara and Shirley had a brief conversation where the latter told how society had given the women prescribed roles and they couldn’t think of doing anything beyond that. Shirley wanted to change that. In her impactful speech at Mills College, she said that apart from racial and ethnic politics, there was a need for gender politics, too. Barbara was moved by the speech, and she went and expressed to Shirley how she had a lot of hope that she would do something great. Barbara told Shirley that, though she was only 25 years old, she was sick and tired of everything that was happening in the political landscape. She said that there was a lack of good options when it came to choosing the leader of the nation. She said that though Humphrey and Muskie were better as compared to Nixon, they were still not good enough themselves. Barbara said the nation had to choose between bad and worse, which in itself described the state of democracy. Shirley told Barbara that the first step that she could take was to exercise her power of voting and choose the candidate she felt was good for the nation. Shirley had a knack for seeing through a person and understanding the kind of potential they had. She had made an unlikely choice by hiring Robert Gottlieb, and later, she told Barbara that she needed a fierce woman like her on her side. Barbara was a bit taken aback when the offer was made to her, as, just like Gottlieb, she was also unsure if she was up for the responsibility. Barbara knew that she wanted to do something for Shirley, as she believed in her ideologies, and she was very sure that the latter would completely revamp the entire political structure. 

Why did Barbara want Shirley to attend the convention? 

Shirley had told Barbara during their first meeting that she had to be in the system to bring about any sort of change. Barbara was confused about what she should do, as she just couldn’t see how the personal motives of the political leaders plagued the country. Shirley told her very clearly that she could try shouting and screeching from the outside, but the fact was that unless and until she was inside the system, she wouldn’t be able to bring about the kind of change she wanted to see. Later in the film, we saw that Shirley didn’t want to go to the National Black Political Convention happening in 1972 in Gary. It was the largest get-together of the black community at that time in US history. The black politicians and revolutionaries were coming together in solidarity as they wanted to bring about change in policies and strategies. More than 8,000 black people were attending the convention, and Stanley Townsend was requesting Shirley to go there and mark her presence. But Shirley was very stubborn about the fact that she didn’t want to go there. Barbara couldn’t stop herself, and she asked her why she was not willing to go. Barbara’s viewpoint was that for the upcoming election, the people needed to know who Shirley was, what she stood for, and what she sought to achieve as the president of the nation. Also, Barbara remembered that it was Shirley who told her that one had to be in the system to change something, and she was only backing out. Shirley told Barbara that though she knew going to the convention would help her, she was disappointed about the fact that the black male leaders had not invited even a single black woman to speak there. Barbara realized that Shirley actually meant it when she spoke about shifting the spotlight from racial politics to gender politics. Shirley was fighting for the cause of all women, and from that day on, Barbara started respecting her even more. 

Where is Barbara Lee now?

After the Shirley Chisholm campaign ended, Barbara worked for the Black Panther Party for some time and then became the chief of staff for Ron Dellums (US Representative). Barbara served in the California state assembly and also in the state senate between 1990 and 1998. She was selected for the House of Representatives, and she made sure that she at least tried to bring about change through the powers vested in her. Lee was a progressive leader, and she is credited with being one of those politicians who criticized the nation’s policy during the Iraq War. In 2023, she fought the elections for the United States Senate, though she wasn’t able to win them. Barbara always believed that had Shirley not fought the elections, a black woman wouldn’t have realized what she was capable of doing, and they wouldn’t have raised their voice against discrimination or asked for equal opportunity.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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