A grassroots movement of mothers who challenged the system in “Storming Caesars Palace” on INDEPENDENT LENS – March 20 at 10 pm

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Based on the Groundbreaking Book of the Same Name, the Film Chronicles the Iconic Las Vegas Activist Who Kickstarted a Grassroots Movement That Fought for a Basic Income Guarantee for Families


“Storming Caesars Palace” chronicles the extraordinary story of Ruby Duncan who went from a boisterous protestor to a strategic organizer to a White House advisor. As she led a grassroots movement that fought for basic income guarantee for families, challenging presidents, and the Las Vegas mob, everyday Americans had to rethink their notions of the “welfare queen”—a derogatory stereotype of women who allegedly misuse or collect excess public assistance through fraud or manipulation.

The film will make its television debut on PBS’s Emmy Award-winning documentary anthology series INDEPENDENT LENS on March 20, 2023, at 10:00 p.m. “Storming Caesars Palace” will also be available to stream on the PBS app.

Welfare rights leaders put their hands together, celebrating passage of their National Plan of Action
Welfare rights leaders (including Johnnie Tillmon and Beulah Sanders) put their hands together, celebrating passage of their National Plan of Action item at the First National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas.
Credit: Diana Mara Henry Photography

Through interviews with Duncan, her family, and key players in the movement such as Gloria Steinem, filmmaker Hazel Gurland-Pooler weaves together a trove of archival footage to tell the story of the brave fight for justice, dignity, an adequate income, and democratic participation for low- income mothers.

Based on the groundbreaking book by Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty, the documentary spotlights an unsung leader and movement, whose stand for America’s principles of justice, inclusion, and opportunity for all continues to shape the calls for economic justice that ring today.

“When I began filming with Ruby Duncan 15 years ago, her story of courage and activism truly inspired me,” said director Hazel Gurland-Pooler. “As an adoptee, Ruby’s determination to take care of her children—even mobilizing a grassroots anti-poverty movement to provide for all the children in her community—proves how transformative ‘Mother Power’ can be. Low-income mothers are often ridiculed in our society and stereotyped in the media, but I knew PBS was the perfect place to shift the narrative so that the mothers of the welfare rights movement could be recognized as visionary political strategists, standing up for America’s principles of justice, opportunity, and democracy for all. INDEPENDENT LENS’s no barrier to entry—that everyone can see this film for free—allows access to the widest audience to learn about how an ordinary group of women led one of the most extraordinary Black feminist movements in U.S. history, providing a path to an equitable future.”

Ruby Duncan standing and addressing group, with Jane Fonda seated and listening
Ruby Duncan standing and addressing group, with Jane Fonda seated and listening on the eve of the Strip march in 1971. Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After losing her job as a hotel worker in Las Vegas due to a workplace accident, Duncan went on welfare, and discovered firsthand the stigma and harassment by an overzealous welfare department.

In response, Duncan joined a welfare rights group, alongside Mary Wesley and Alversa Beals, to fight for adequate income, dignity, and justice. They, along with low-income mothers across the country, formed the National Welfare Rights Organization with the support of George Wiley and Frances Fox Piven. Together, they introduced a guaranteed adequate income campaign which, with feminist Gloria Steinem at their side, became part of the Democratic platform in 1972.

When the Las Vegas mothers were slashed from the welfare rolls, they launched “Operation Nevada,” and led an army 1,500 strong—including Ralph Abernathy and Jane Fonda—down the Las Vegas Strip, taking on the Vegas mob, and storming into Caesars Palace, shutting it down.

Later, Duncan formed Operation Life, one of the first women-led community corporations in the nation, bringing medical services and meaningful jobs to her Westside neighborhood. With the success of the movement, Duncan became influential in Washington, eventually leading to her appointment to President Carter’s Council on Economic Opportunity in 1979.

The film had its world premiere as the opening night film at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia, August 2022. At the festival, the film won the Shine Award for a first-time filmmaker and was nominated for Best Feature Documentary. “Storming Caesars Palace” received Open Call funding from ITVS, as well as funding from the Diversity Development Fund.

Visit the “Storming Caesars Palace” page on INDEPENDENT LENS to learn more about the film.