'Bella!' - Challenging the Status Quo

"Bella!" via IMDb.

In Jeff L. Lieberman’s informative and reverent doc “Bella!” (Re-Emerging Films), there are many fascinating and enlightening things to learn about the late, progressive politician Bella Abzug. But perhaps the most shocking is that she was never before the subject of a documentary, that is, until now.

A pioneering force for women, as well as lesbian and gay people, there has never been anyone like her before or since. The daughter of Russian immigrants who settled in New York City, Bella’s butcher father owned the Live and Let Live Meat Market in Hell’s Kitchen. Bella attended college and law school in the city.

“Bella!” does a remarkable job tracing Abzug’s growth as an activist, beginning with the 1961 Women Strike For Peace where she picketed in front of the White House. Her rise through the political ranks (Abzug coined the slogan, “A woman’s place is in the House of Representatives.”), becoming a congresswoman in the early 1970s, and continued to make history throughout her political life.

Lieberman makes expert use of vintage photographs, film, and video footage, including out on the campaign trail, as well as clips from talk shows (Dick Cavett, Dinah Shore, and Joan Rivers, for example). Hearing Bella speak and watching her in action perfectly illustrate how she never wavered from her mission to better the lives of people less fortunate, and that included women in the mid-to-late 20th century, as well as the gay community.

What makes “Bella!” special, aside from the groundbreaking legislation for which Abzug could take credit, is the range of voices singing her praises. This chorus includes Barbra Streisand (with whom Abzug rode down Broadway in the back of a flatbed truck during an early campaign), Lily Tomlin, Gloria Steinem, Shirley MacLaine, Hillary Clinton, Maxine Waters, Nancy Pelosi, Renée Taylor, writer/activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, political analyst Dick Morris, Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, among others. Interviews with family (her daughters Liz and Eve), fellow activists, and lifelong friends are also plentiful.

One of the most revealing interviews is with gay activist Allen Roskoff who details Abzug’s enduring commitment to the community and gay rights. She lived in Greenwich Village (37 Bank Street) and even made a campaign stop at the Continental Baths. “Bella!” is a long overdue and well-deserved tribute to the force of nature that was Bella Abzug.

Rating: A-

Gregg Shapiro is the author of nine books including Refrain in Light (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2023). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in South Florida with his husband Rick, and their dog Coco.


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