MOVIE OF THE WEEK August 18, 2023: BELLA!

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In a USA that’s lucky enough to have strong women like Kamala Harris, Maxine Waters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, and Katie Porter speaking up, persisting, reclaiming their time, and generally schooling the White male political old guard, it’s important to remember that Bella Abzug did it all first. Jeff L. Lieberman’s engrossing documentary Bella! reminds us what a trailblazer — and force of nature — Abzug was, detailing her impact on American government and culture.

Known for her outspoken personality, incredible work ethic, and penchant for colorful hats, Abzug played a crucial role in championing women’s rights (as well as those of other marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community) in the 1960s and ’70s, co-leading the activist group Women Strike for Peace, campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment, and ultimately getting elected to the U.S. Congress in 1970. She fought against the Vietnam War and for landmark legislation like the Equality Credit Opportunity Act. She held officials accountable, she swore like a sailor, and she never, ever backed down.

The film highlights Abzug’s accomplishments, with interviewees from Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton to Shirley MacLaine and Barbra Streisand praising her chutzpah, dedication, and impact as a role model. People from her personal life, including her two daughters, also contribute their stories and thoughts, painting a picture of a woman who loved her family (she was married to her supportive husband, Martin, for more than 40 years, until he died in 1986) but was never content to sit at home while there was work to be done. Bella! does not specifically address reports that Abzug was sometimes verbally abusive to her staff members, though some interviewees’ anecdotes make it quite clear that she wasn’t always an easy person to be around or to work for.

But as Abzug herself would probably have been the first to tell you, it’s not usually the “easy” people who get shit done. And Bella Abzug definitely got shit done. In the process, she became a 1970s cultural icon, popping up on Saturday Night Live and in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, drawing crowds to fundraisers hosted by Streisand and other stars, and always getting the last word during talk show appearances. Her time in the political spotlight started to wane after she narrowly lost a race for the U.S. Senate in 1976, but she kept working for the causes and groups she believed in until she died in 1998. Thanks to Lieberman and this well-constructed film, her legacy will continue to live on. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: Decades before AOC and the rest of the squad there was Bella Abzug. A political animal in the best sense of the phrase, she began her career as a civil rights lawyer before she was elected as one of the very few women in the House of Representatives. This engrossing documentary relates the life, times, and many campaigns of a woman whose work in Congress continues to impact our lives as she fought for equality for women, people of color, and LGBT and against the war machine. Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Maxine Waters are among the pols who appear, alongside her daughters and famous allies that include Gloria Steinem, Barbra Streisand, and Shirley MacLaine, all of them speaking to her importance in advancing rights for all. But the film’s most vivid scenes are the ones in which Bella speaks for herself in a wealth of archival footage that completes a stunning portrait of an extraordinary woman.

Sherin Nicole In 1970s America, society pressured women to sit down and shut up. Bella Abzug disagreed. She wanted us to stand up and speak loudly. The documentary, Bella! reminds us “a woman’s place is in the house” and that house represents the nation. It is an edifying view into the indomitable life and legacy of the politician known as “Battling Bella”. Through interviews with equally iconic women like Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand, Gloria Steinem, Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi, writer/director Jeff L. Lieberman offers a comprehensive exploration of Abzug’s rise as a feminist and progressive activist. As a template and a point of inspiration, Bella Abzug’s journey provides valuable context for today’s political landscape and the women who now walk the halls of Congress with their shoulders back and their voices lifted. With its insightful narrative and compelling storytelling, Bella! serves as a powerful tribute to a true game-changer in American politics.

Nikki Fowler: Born in the 20s and admitted to the New York bar in the 40s paving the way for the very few women who practiced law, Bella! the inspiring documentary delights with the courageous journey of Congresswoman Bella Abzug. Helping to support the first gay rights bill, advocating for women to identify as Ms. as a prefix outside of their marital status, fighting for women to have credit cards and being an ally for civil rights when she endured public death threats advocating for the likes of William McGee, a Black man accused of rape in a consensual relationship with his white lover who was ultimately sentenced to death by an all white male jury which was the norm, Bella challenged politics and forged ahead for women’s rights despite the constant pushback from not only both sides of the political spectrum but also from the Nixon Administration, the CIA, FBI, as well as The New York Times. At a time when we are being inundated with women’s rights being stripped including alimony and abortion rights, Bella Abzug’s victories all done with her signature hat, should be on the tip of everyone’s tongues in the fight for equality. Bella! is informative with candid interview clips with Abzug’s snarky and no nonsense Bronx charisma in getting her foot in the door and breaking the ceiling for all of us. Before Pelosi and Kamala, there was Bella!

Leslie Combemale As inspiring as Bella! is, the documentary is also a sad reminder of how much women’s voices and bodily autonomy, as well as LGBTQ rights, have slipped through the politicization of the Supreme Court. Bella Abzug was a powerful and committed voice for women and underrepresented voices and had a huge impact on history. Not only does Jeff L. Lieberman’s film show how many ways she made a difference, and, really, what an eternal optimist she was, it also impresses upon viewers how much we need voices like hers right now in the US.

Jennifer Merin Bella! And, yes, be sure to include the exclamation point in the film’s title because the subject of Jeff L. Lieberman’s well researched and beautifully crafted documentary deserves emphatic punctuation.  Bella Abzug (1920-1998) was a champion of civil rights for women in every aspect of our lives. She was the feminist activist politician who fought fiercely to enact laws to establish and protect equity in the workplace, in government representation, in family matters — all of the women’s civil rights that we are now at such high risk of losing in our nation’s current regressive climate. Read full review.

Loren King The film is an irresistible love letter to New York and to Abzug, the quintessential New Yorker. Brash, bold and gusty, it’s no wonder Abzug has been a character played by iconic actresses such as Margo Martindale in “Mrs. America”; Bette Midler in Julie Taymor’s The Glorias; and Kathy Bates who played an Abzug-like character in On the Basis of Sex about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He didn’t play Abzug, but even Harvey Fierstein offered his own version in his 2019 play Bella Bella. In his autobiography, Fierstein writes that Liz Abzug wanted him to write a musical about her mother. Maybe someday. That’s the form that Abzug, a larger than life, singular sensation, truly deserves. needs a release as wide as the whole world. Read Nell Minow: What seemed brash and outspoken in Bella Abzug’s day seems almost mild in today’s environment of screechy partisanship and fractured media. But the biggest difference is what shines through this documentary, her imperishable integrity and dedication to the public good. target=”_blank”>full review.

Liz Whittemore A political tour de force, fearless feminist, lover of hats, and inspiration to millions, Jeff L. Lieberman’s documentary Bella! introduces generations of viewers to the woman who paved the way for every female politician and homegrown activist to raise their voices. The doc takes us through Abzug’s life through sit-down interviews with family, friends, and colleagues. It explores her work as a lawyer, her marriage, and the fierce friendships that lit a fire in so many. The relevancy of Bella’s words still rings true today as we continue to fight for justice. As a heavily pregnant individual who joined the ranks of New Yorkers during The Women’s March in 2016, as someone who is currently witnessing the rights Bella fought for slip away day by day, as a mother who wants to make sure her six-year-old daughter never has to repeat this era of history, Bella! serves as an essential history lesson. When I wear my “Women Belong In The House and Senate” sweatshirt, I can now tell my daughter Bella Abzug said that.

Cate Marquis Bella! is a much-needed documentary to introduce to a new generation to at powerhouse for women’s rights, Black rights, gay rights and democracy for all – Bella Abzug. The woman who originated the quip, “A woman’s place is in the House, the House of Congress,” was a big personality but also a woman lawyer (at a time when that was rare) and a member of Congress who stood up for everyone who was not being treated equally and fairly. Known for her signature big hats, her colorful wardrobe and especially her bold voice, Bella Abzug seemed unforgettable. Yet memory of her contributions, particularly for women’s rights, have faded from popular memory, which makes this excellent, warts-and-all documentary of her life and work a welcome addition, and a treat. Bella! is an absorbing film about a woman dynamo whose fearless, tireless work for others has so much to teach to those fighting for equality for all now.


Title: Bella!

Directors: Jeff L. Lieberman

Release Date: August 18, 2023

Running Time: 102 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriters: Documentary Jeff L. Lieberman,

Distribution Company: Re-Emerging Films

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).