‘Bella!:’ Taking the fight to the streets and the House
Jeff L. Lieberman’s biographical documentary, “Bella!” churns along at a hectic pace as if hustling to keep up with its subject. Bella Abzug fought ferociously for equal rights and against the Vietnam War in the U.S. Congress, bringing a New Yorker’s tenacity and a plain-spoken dedication to democratic ideals, akin to fellow pioneer Shirley Chisholm.
The child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Abzug began her political path with pamphleteering in childhood, and later drew on organizer-style moxie and a Columbia University legal education (defending Willie McGee in a notorious case in Jim Crow Mississippi). But it wasn’t until 1970 that she ran for a congressional seat, beating a longtime incumbent in Manhattan in the primary and kicking off a busy decade of legislative battling.
Lieberman’s starry interviews — from Hillary Clinton to Gloria Steinem, to Rep. Maxine Waters, to avid Abzug fundraiser Barbra Streisand — speak to the liberal, feminist revolution of which Abzug was a vital part. Abzug’s own words — drawing on audio diaries — provide the background to her political worldview: as a reaction to the “cocoon approach to living” of the 1950s, as a manifestation of Judaic notions of justice and as a dedication to equal rights for all, leading to her sponsoring the Equality Act of 1974, intended to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status, and sexual orientation.”
Aides and others recall that the tireless Abzug could be both a charmer and a screamer. After losing a 1976 Senate race to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, she tried and failed to attain other offices before shifting to international activism; she died in 1998. Her never-say-die advocacy still inspires, but the film also illustrates the merciless challenges of electoral endurance, even for the fiercest fighter.
‘Bella!’ not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. In theaters.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.