Grace Lee Boggs: What do Americans look like?

Grace Lee Boggs and Director Grace Lee. Photo by Quyen Tran, used with permission.

Grace Lee Boggs and documentary filmmaker Grace Lee. Photo by Quyen Tran, used with permission.

WHERE CAN I  SEE “American Revolutionary”? The documentary about Grace Lee Boggs debuts on PBS’s POV documentary series Monday, June 30, 2014. Use this PBS webpage to learn more and check local listings. AND, from July 1-30, 2014, PBS will stream the documentary free of charge from that website, as well. No word yet on a DVD release of the film, but stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for news of a future DVD.

REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM

As she enters her 100th year on the planet, Grace Lee Boggs has lived long enough to see all of America celebrating her achievements as a philosopher and civil rights activist. That’s a stark contrast with the many years that FBI bulldog J. Edgar Hoover labeled Grace and her husband James dangerous subversives—resulting in FBI surveillance and a thick FBI file compiled on both of them.

Filmmaker Grace Lee accidentally discovered this woman who is a household name in Detroit (as one of Michigan’s most famous resident philosophers, authors and human-rights activists). When she was starting out as a young filmmaker, Grace Lee was intrigued by the significant number of Chinese-American women with “her” same name. A decade ago, she began filming interviews nationwide in what she called The Grace Lee Project, and she eventually completed a documentary on the similarly named women in 2005. Among the women she met in that project, Detroit’s Grace Lee Boggs was by far the most intriguing—so filmmaker Grace Lee began a long-term friendship with the Detroit activist. They visited at least once each year for additional interviews.

The result is American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. The play on the words “revolution” and “evolution” comes from Grace Lee Boggs’ own teachings about her journey as a young scholar from pure Marxism through the turbulence of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—to an embrace of nonviolence and a new appreciation for the evolution of change within communities. That change takes the entire hour-and-a-half of this film to explain—including several “30-second primers” on key issues that filmmaker Grace Lee inserts into her documentary to help us keep up with Grace Lee Boggs’ philosophical arguments.

Born Grace Lee, the daughter of a well-to-do Chinese-American family in New York City (where her father owned a famous restaurant), the young Chinese-American woman stood out as a brilliant student. She graduated early from Barnard College and, by age 25, already had earned a doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr. She quickly became a well-known translator, speaker, journalist and activist in the movement for social justice and for racial equality—a movement that was ruthlessly suppressed for decades. In 1953, she married African-American activist James Boggs, the great love of her life until he died in 1993.

Her extensive work in the civil rights movement and later in the “black-power” movement—working shoulder to shoulder with her husband—mystified Hoover and the FBI. In one of the more amusing scenes in this new documentary, the filmmaker shows us a passage from her FBI file in which the agents could not make heads or tails of her ethnic identity. She was a true original even to her enemies!

WHAT YOU WILL SEE IN
‘AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY:
THE EVOLUTION OF GRACE LEE BOGGS’

Grace Lee Boggs American Revolutionary posterThe film opens with Grace Lee Boggs walking—assisted by a wheeled walker—along the huge expanse of Detroit’s most famous symbol of blight: the 40-acre hulk of the devastated Packard Automotive Plant. Her words to us, as viewers, run counter to the startling visual imagery we see on the screen. She says:

“I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit. Detroit gives us a sense of epochs of civilization in a way that you don’t get in a city like New York. It’s obvious from looking at Detroit that what was doesn’t work. People are always striving for size, wanting to be giants. And this is a symbol of how giants fall.”

And she has made her point. The petite Chinese-American woman who now is nearing her own century mark has survived and continues to walk these streets—even as the gargantuan auto plant now is a dangerous ruin.

Then, she warns viewers not to think that destruction is inevitable. In fact, communities move in complex, sometimes circular patterns—and new possibilities lie just around the corner of our imagination. “Evolution is not linear. Times interact.”

If you’re a younger viewer, this may seem incomprehensible, she tells us. “It’s hard to understand when you’re young about how reality is constantly changing because it hasn’t changed so much in your lifetime,” she says.

And that’s just in the opening few minutes of this film!

Here are some other “take away” quotes from Grace Lee Boggs to give you a sense of the thought-provoking journey that these two Grace Lees—the filmmaker and Boggs herself—are inviting us to undertake in American Revolutionary.

On her attitude toward the world’s current condition: “I think we’re in a time of great hope and great danger.”

On the need for everyone to keep changing: “Don’t get stuck in old ideas. Keep recognizing that reality is changing and that your ideas have to change.”

And: “Most people think of ideas as fixed. Ideas have their power because they’re not fixed. Once they’re fixed, they’re dead. … Changing is more honorable than not changing.”

On the power of each life: “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be. And you do choose how you think.”

On the power of conversation: “We are the only living things that have conversations, as far as we know. When you have conversation you never know what’s going to come out of your mouth or someone else’s mouth.”

On imagination: “There are times when expanding our imaginations is what is required. The radical movement has over emphasized the role of activism and underestimated the role of reflection.”

Why did she eventually come to embrace nonviolence? “Why is nonviolence such an important philosophy? Because it respects the capacity of human beings to grow. It gives them the opportunity to grow their souls. And we owe that to each other. And it took me a long time to realize that.”

Finally: “It’s so obvious that we are coming to a huge turning point. You begin with the protests but you have to move on from there. Just being angry—just being resentful—just being outraged does not constitute revolution. So many institutions in our society need reinventing. The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is. I don’t know what the next American revolution will be. But you might be able to imagine it—if your imagination is rich enough!”

Care to read more?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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