Grace Lee Boggs rolls onto the big screen with the aid of her senior hybrid (a
walker with wheels!), gazing at an old ruin of a Detroit auto plant–a relic of
America’s failed industrial past.
But next to all that historical doom, Grace stands alive and well, a triumph of
her humanistic vision.
Grace Lee Boggs at CAAMFest 2014 in San Francisco (photo by Emil Guillermo)
This is the opening image of the new documentary “American Revolutionary: The
Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” which began a commercial run at the AMC Loews on
19th and Broadway this weekend in New York City.
It’s a long way from the Chin Lee restaurant that her father ran on Broadway in
New York City in the ’30s.
Boggs, who will be 99 in June, has come a long way from her Chinese American
But some of us are just catching up to her now.
I’m ashamed I didn’t know much about Grace Lee Boggs when I first met her nearly
three years ago and wrote this blog post about her book, The Next American
Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century.
But it was the same time younger Asian Americans were beginning to discover the
power of the Grace Lee Boggs story: Chinese American, goes to Barnard among the
privileged, gets her doctorate, but can only find a job in Chicago, where she
meets an African American community organizer and intellectual, Jimmy Lee Boggs.
She marries him and moves to Detroit, where she stays 55 years to fight for
civil rights, workers’ rights and human rights.
The film covers all that bio stuff.
But the documentary’s jewels are the intimate moments that go beyond the bio,
such as when the filmmaker Grace Lee, related only by common name, early in the
movie gives Grace Lee Boggs a haircut in her kitchen. All vanity is stripped
here. We’re getting something real.
The project actually started as an exploration of the people with the common
name Grace Lee. Fortunately, filmmaker Lee had the good sense to know that
focusing on Grace Lee Boggs was where the gold was.
Filmmaker Grace Lee with Grace Lee Boggs at CAAMFest (photo by Emil Guillermo)
I still have some questions I would have liked the film to explore more, such as
how the Asian/Black relationship worked. Was the black movement so all-consuming
that it dwarfed an Asian American consciousness? Even when Vincent Chin was
killed in Detroit? Were we all just people of color in a class war that brought
us all together?
The film does show some great home movies of Jimmy Lee Boggs and Grace with
friends. But it doesn’t quite explore why they never had children.
Grace does admit that she never talked about personal things with Jimmy.
Pretty startling, but not when you consider Jimmy Lee Boggs was also a prolific
author and intellectual in his own right. On seeing the film, one can imagine
orgiastic discussions of Hegel and Marx as enough to sustain the two of them.
That makes this a real grassroots intellectual’s movie.
There are no car chases, nor does Lena Dunham pop out in the nude anywhere in
Hitler does walk backward.
Some of my favorite moments come toward the end, when Grace is mano y mano in
conversation, her greatest medium.
When Grace Lee Boggs talks to actor/activist Danny Glover, she completely
dresses him down in a discussion about education by saying:
“First of all, everybody who talks about quality education is really talking
about how our people can become more like white people and advance in the
Glover gets tongue tied and disagrees. Eventually, he leaves Grace’s house with
She’s made him think.
But turnabout is fair play. When the filmmaker Lee decides to challenge back,
Grace Lee Boggs admits to not having any regrets or even feeling frustrated at
any point in her life.
The filmmaker, as our surrogate, asks how can she be so confident in her
positions and ideas.
And Boggs delivers this unscripted line: “If I had undertaken the challenges
other people have undertaken, if I had decided to become a mother, for example…I
could imagine a lot of frustrations.” The audience where I saw the film breaks
out in laughter.
But then Boggs follows up: “So in that sense I’ve lived more a life of a man
than as a woman.”
It’s a kind of reality check statement that can anger and empower all at the
The filmmaker presses on about how the positive sense of Boggs seems to lack
that “internal struggle,” maybe a sense of the Hegelian dialectic that Boggs
likes to talk about.
It stumps her, and even Boggs has to admit she’ll have to take the criticism and
In San Francisco last week at the Center for Asian American Media’s special
screening, I greeted Boggs, who was wheelchair bound.
I was flattered she remembered me from three years ago.
She’s still astonished that the Asian American movement has discovered her.
But there I was with so many young Asian Americans who see her as the mother of
all their revolutionary thoughts about life.
One of the young under-30s was Marissa Louie, a granddaughter of one of San
Francisco Chinatown’s founding families. Louie, a graduate of UC-Berkeley and
now a socially conscious high-tech entrepreneur, knows how being a woman still
makes you a rebel in society. She recognized a bit of herself in Boggs and even
tweeted during the screening. Afterward, she handed Boggs a bouquet.
As I approached Grace Lee Boggs after the screening, I just had to ask her about
Grace Lee’s probing questions about Boggs’ uncompromising certainty and
self-assuredness. Had she thought about it further?
She looked at me and said: “Not really.”
And then we both laughed as she rolled away into the loud and adoring crowd.