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Remembering Grace Lee Boggs-The Evolution of American Revolutionary

By Grace Lee

Grace Lee Boggs died Monday at the age of 100. She captured the hearts, minds, and imaginations of people from all walks of life. “We have to change ourselves in order to change the world,” Grace said, and that is what she did. She lived the life she believed in and her vision of justice and human connection, her life of struggle, and her revolutionary thinking served as an example and inspiration for many of us.

Last year Grace Lee, the filmmaker of the Peabody award-winning documentary American Revolutionary, wrote this piece for Praxis Center about the making of the film and how “Grace’s presence – in Detroit, in the world, and in my imagination – has helped transform my own thinking.” We share these words now as a tribute to Grace Lee Boggs, beloved American Revolutionary.

POV is streaming American Revolutionary for free until Nov 4.

#GraceLeeTaughtMe is being used to honor the life and work of Grace Lee Boggs on Twitter.

I first met Grace Lee Boggs in 2000 while filming The Grace Lee Project, a personal documentary that took me on a journey to unpack the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans. I interviewed dozens of women who shared our incredibly common Asian American name but none would shake my world more than Grace Lee Boggs. When I visited Grace at her home in Detroit at age 85, I was so blown away by her and her community, I knew that I would have to make a longer film just about her someday.

As an independent filmmaker, I choose my subject matter based on topics that intrigue me, or nagging questions that slowly evolve into obsessions. My first encounter with Grace kept me wondering:  where had she been all my life? How is it that I had never heard of this Chinese American radical activist and philosopher who had been involved in the African American movement for decades, working alongside and in movements connected to CLR James, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others. And how exactly did the daughter of Chinese immigrants born in 1915 earn a Ph.D. in philosophy before evolving into a Black Power activist with a thick FBI file? And all of this set against the backdrop of Detroit – a city that has struggled through so many different epochs – within the last 60 years. There were just too many questions and unfinished conversations.

Grace Lee Boggs and Grace Lee (Photo Credit: Quyen Tran)

Over the years, I would return to Detroit to visit Grace. I’d hang out in her kitchen and living room and follow her to community meetings where she would hold everyone from journalists to renowned activists to high school students in her thrall. I recognized myself in all of them, eager to connect with someone who seemed to embody history itself.

As someone who came of age in the era of identity politics, it’s hard to ignore the fascinating details of how this Chinese American woman became a Black Power activist in Detroit. But Grace would constantly use our interview sessions to turn the questions back on me. What do you think about that? How do you feel about what’s happening in Korea? Tell me more about your own story, she would say as soon as the cameras turned off.

American Revolutionary: Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, directed by Grace Lee

American Revolutionary has been the most challenging film I’ve made in my short career and also the most rewarding. My team and I were constantly confronted with the big questions. How do you make a film about ideas? Or a 90-something woman who spends most of her time thinking and talking to people in her living room? How do you cover 100 years of American social movements in an engaging way? And how do you convince funders that a film that includes biography, history and personal elements can be entertaining, emotional, and not simply a hagiography? I am indebted to my collaborators – producers Caroline Libresco and Austin Wilkin and Eurie Chung, editor Kim Roberts, DPs Jerry Henry and Quyen Tran – who made the multi-year journey with me, working whenever funds became available (and even when they weren’t) to get this film to completion.

One of the most challenging aspects of this film was bringing together visual elements to tell the story. A limited amount of personal photographs and archival material needed to be supplemented by digging through archives of outtakes, recordings, articles and letters gathering dust in various libraries and in some cases people’s basements or attics. One of the biggest gifts to our film was discovering that filmmaker Frances Reid had filmed Grace and James Boggs in Maine along with their colleague and friend Freddy Paine, with the hopes of someday making a film about them. Although she never made that film, Frances generously donated her footage to us – and its because of her that we have moving images of the inimitable Jimmy Boggs, an activist, auto worker and author who was married to Grace for forty years until his death in 1993. Seeing him come to life – when I had only learned of him through his writings or Grace’s stories – was truly special.

My own identity is more wrapped up in Grace’s story than she knows. And it’s not because we share the same name. Grace’s presence – in Detroit, in the world, and in my imagination – has helped transform my own thinking about how to tell a story about someone like her. The journey to bring this film to life has been an evolution. It’s not an issue film, nor is it about a celebrity or urgent injustice that rallies you to take action or call your Representative. It’s about an elderly woman who spends most of her days sitting in her living room thinking and hatching ideas about the next American revolution. If you catch wind of some of those ideas, they just might change the world.

 


Grace Lee is an award-winning Korean American filmmaker and the director of American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.