It’s hard to know what to think of Grace Lee Boggs when we first meet her on-screen. The white-haired 95-year-old activist is both open and enigmatic, honest about some things but also incredibly guarded about others. Hers is a persona that not only crushes stereotypes, but serves as the embodiment of an apparent contradiction: for over fifty years, the Chinese-American Boggs has been a prominent member of Detroit’s African American community and a radical supporter of the black power movement.
In American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, director Grace Lee (no relation) constructs a fascinating profile that attempts to unpack the dense juxtapositions that make up the Boggs identity both publicly and privately. It’s an excellent primer for those completely unfamiliar with Boggs or her work, which includes not only decades of public organizing and activism with figures like CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, or the Black Panthers, but also a series of books on race and gender in the 20th century.
The project began for director Lee while working on a separate film, interviewing women across the country named “Grace Lee” in order to represent the varied identities and realities of Asian-American women. The question of identity is indeed a big part of this documentary - FBI records on Boggs mistakenly refer to her as Afro-Chinese. "I want to make it very clear that I do not see myself as a Negro,” Boggs says in footage from an older interview, “I have not lived my life as a Negro, I dont think anyone who hasnt can speak [to the Negro experience]." And yet, in other interviews from the height of her activism in the mid to late sixties, seated beside her black activist husband Jimmy Boggs, we hear Lee refer to herself and African-Americans in the movement as “we.”
The notion that a Chinese-American woman, graduate of Barnard and Bryn Mawr colleges, the daughter of a well-to-do restaurant owner, would dedicate her life to black rights may at first be somewhat perplexing, but as we get to know Boggs through a series of conversations between she and the director, it becomes increasingly difficult, even irrelevant, to question her passion. It’s the conversations between Grace Lee and Grace Lee Boggs throughout the documentary that make it so engaging.
We’re invited into Lee’s home, where most of the interviews in this documentary are held, getting to see the jumbled wall of books on Hegel and Marx in what used to be her master bedroom, the vinyl records of Malcolm X speeches that litter her living room floor. We get all of her, intelligent and engaging, sarcastic and and self-assured in the way older people who have run out of craps to give usually are. But most importantly we getting insight into how Boggs has seen the plight of minorities in Detroit change over the years.
Because this is as much the story of Boggs’s work in Detroit as it is the story of Detroit itself. The city, now almost exclusively referred to in a sort of past tense, comes to life with the beautiful effect of old black-and-white stock footage of its golden era superimposed over color footage of the empty lots or abandoned buildings where once stood auto plants and thriving businesses. Bogg’s own experiences anchor our virtual tour of the city, from her organizing of Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Detroit, to her husband’s years as a Ford motors employee, to her efforts today in the community building of urban gardens and farms in Detroit’s downtown neighborhoods.
There’s an immediacy and a sense of hope about the documentary that’s appealing. Call it the nature of the game, but most films on civil rights activists are always taking a look back, attempting to piece together a portrait of these great figures who came and fought and left, often violently. Here, we get a chance to see a 95-year-old woman who, over time, has seen the fruits of her labor, the failures, the repetitions of history, a woman who has had time to evolve her ideas and evolve as a person.
Earlier a proponent of violence as a means to change, Lee says in the doc, “I’ve realized that rebellion is an outburst of anger - but it’s not revolution.” Whether you agree with her ideologies or not, there’s something valuable about the film’s overarching message, this idea that ultimately, revolution comes only evolution.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.