The documentary on Grace Lee Boggs which screened at the 2014 Athena Film Festival was sold out and there appeared to be individuals floating on the rafters aching to see the film. They were even more enthusiastic to see Grace Lee Boggs in the live Q & A session and meet her afterward. The audience was filled with young and old, and most likely, the oldest one there was Grace Lee Boggs herself. She is an active 98 year old, who is raging against the “dying of the light” of inequality and injustice, despite the visissiitudes of old age which aren’t for” cowards or sissies.”
This Chinese-American writer, activist, feminist and philosopher dedicated to improving herself, the country and the plight of average citizens has worked tirelessly for 70 years in the Civil Rights Movement. The documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs directed by Grace Lee (no relation), created from filmed interviews and discussions with Boggs, friends and celebrity fans, follows an ethnographic style over a ten-year period. During this time the director engaged her intention to understand Boggs’ evolution as a representative icon of change who was swept up in a flow of revolutionary crosscurrents from the 1940s until this day. This river of social progress is moving toward a paradigm shift and a new spiral of events which Boggs discussed after the screening. The events include her latest venture Detroit Summer also highlighted in the film.
The documentarian catalogues Boggs’ earlier life through narration, pictures, archival film and Boggs’ commentary and continues with film footage of Boggs over the last 10 years. We learn that Boggs was one of four women of color in 1935 to graduate from Barnard College in New York City. Because there were few opportunities for women of color in academia, Boggs took a low paying job in the University of Chicago Philosophy Library. At that time she also took her first foray into activism becoming involved with tenancy rights. This cultural engagement suited her and she joined the Worker’s Party, one of a number of parties she advocated for during her lifetime. After a speaking engagement, Boggs met with C.L.R. James and was hooked into his movement. She traveled to New York. With new vitality in her learning curve and the hope to enhance social freedom of opportunity for people of color, she worked with C.L.R. James and encountered important activists and cultural figures, i.e. Richard Wright and Katharine Dunham.
Her continued involvement with civil rights always inspired colloquies and discussions which fueled her writings about how to equalize the living and work opportunities for people of color. The film reveals Boggs’ progress after the shifts and splits from various groups in the 1940s, through her meetings with Martin Luther King Jr. and others during the 1950s and 1960s (Malcolm X) when civil rights actions and developments were fast and furious.With husband James Boggs the couple moved onward evolving their beliefs and continuing to work, write and publish about the needed social revolution in America.
Declassified, Grace Lee Boggs’ FBI file kept by Herbert Hoover is perhaps thicker than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s. It is a great point of humor when the filmmaker spotlights that this physically unimposing Chinese American woman with grand intellectual acumen and erudition was considered a potentially violent threat to this country because of the words she spoke and her writings. FBI officials even believed her to be African American because, who indeed who was not black would marry an African American man, live in the black community and actively support the civil rights of people of color?
Boggs’ activism in the Civil Rights Movement began when it was risky and courageous to participate. Only much later did it become “cool” and radical chic to “drop out and get down.” By then, Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs had moved on to other polemics. She was constantly evolving in her understanding, with the hope of carving a meaningful place in her world of friends, including those acquaintances who dropped by her door to engage in discussions and conversations about social revolution.
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs completes a monumental feat examining this icon of American social movements during the last seven decades. It reveals our history in a way that no other documentary has dared to accomplish fusing present, recent past and past past with narrative from the perspective of the one who lived it and is brilliantly competent to provide an ongoing retrospective. It is she who discusses what she learned as a result of her actions, not some historian or commentator. In this the documentary breaks new ground, offering the incredible philosophies and viewpoints of the woman who lived through these events with inspiration, circumspection and wisdom. Above all this very human film pinpoints the unique, vital and unlikely story of how this Chinese American woman saw injustice and inequality in the human heart. And as she saw it flowing out into the culture creating a prevalence of misery and torment, she determined it must stop and she must devote her life to stopping it. Her life proves that in order to get people to say yes to change, one has to first say no to putting up with their abuse, no matter the cost.
Director Grace Lee’s renderings which cobble together film clips and flow her narrative from present to recent past to archival past is nothing short of wonderful. But then her subject matter is wonderful. What Boggs models for women, Asian Americans, millennials and all citizens engaged in the social reform of our political and corporate institutions is without measure. In Boggs’ world discussion and interchange especially with those whose beliefs run counter to ours is paramount for all of our growth. Dialogue and conversation must be ongoing to inspire cultural renaissance. Her world view is best demonstrated in the following quote:
“When you read Marx (or Jesus) this way, you come to see that real wealth is not material wealth and real poverty is not just the lack of food, shelter, and clothing. Real poverty is the belief that the purpose of life is acquiring wealth and owning things. Real wealth is not the possession of property but the recognition that our deepest need, as human beings, is to keep developing our natural and acquired powers to relate to other human beings.”
― Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
The film demonstrates that Grace Lee Boggs has lived her life coming to the fullness of this understanding. Would that we could all do the same following our own pathway of evolution.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.