Grace Lee Boggs coming to big screen near you? Let’s hope so.


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 roots.

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 the movie.

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 system.”

Glover gets tongue tied and disagrees. Eventually, he leaves Grace’s house with six books.

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 same time.

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 “internalize” it.

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.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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