In honor of Grace Lee Boggs, who died October 5 at 100, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” is screening for free on PBS’s POV through November 3. Click here to view it.
“Grace was someone who was able to evolve and change with the times. She asked a lot of questions.”
How do you learn from the past without getting stuck in it? How do you keep evolving with the times, re-evaluating your choices well into your 90s? And how, as a diminutive Chinese-American woman, do you end up deeply embedded in the Black Power movement?
Those questions were top of mind for Grace Lee, the documentary filmmaker whose award-winning “American Revolutionary” tells the story of her namesake Grace Lee Boggs and captures the fundamentally human spirit of the woman who died earlier this month at home in Detroit, just months after she turned 100.
Over more than seven decades until her death, Boggs invested her energy and intellect in a series of movements, from tenant and labor rights in the 30s to civil rights and environmental justice. A philosopher by training — she received her PhD at Barnard — Boggs became a Marxist in the 1950s and ended up in Detroit in the 60s, where she became a member of the Black Power movement.
We spoke with Lee by phone about Boggs’s life, the making of “American Revolutionary” and how the intergenerational conversation that she embarked on with Boggs shaped the film.
Can you tell us how you came to make a film about Grace Lee Boggs?
I was working on a film called “The Grace Lee Project.” Grace Lee is an incredibly common Asian American woman’s name, and when I would introduce myself, people would always tell me about the other Grace Lees that they grew up with, typically an overachieving Asian girl. I decided to make the film to explore if the stereotype was true. I met Grace Lee Boggs in that context, and she completely blew me away. At the time, she was 86 years old and this incredible, dynamic woman living Detroit, a radical activist and writer-philosopher who had devoted her life to social justice in the black community, primarily. So all these things made me realize that someday I needed to make a longer film to answer all the questions I had aboutGrace Lee Boggs.
I remember calling her a few years later and saying, Grace, it’s time to do that film, and she said, “Ok, well, I’m 93, you’d better hurry up.” Fortunately she was around for the next five years or longer so we could finish the film.
In what way was Grace Lee Boggs the American Revolutionary of the film’s title?
Grace had always talked about revolution, and over the course of the film we track the shifting definition of what revolution meant to her politically and personally. How did she continue to move forward, how did she not get burned out? Those are the questions I wanted to answer in order to see what I and others could learn from this vibrant woman in her 80s.
As you got to know Grace Lee, what was your take on what kept her moving forward?
Grace was someone who was able to evolve and change with the times. She asked a lot of questions. As a philosopher in graduate school, she was taken by Hegel and dialectical thinking, the process of struggling through the old to get to something new or learning from the past but not getting stuck in it, and I think that’s something that she deeply embodied and learned through. She talked, too, about growing to love Detroit and all of its flaws, and how that allowed her to witness how things change and the potential to move forward. I think those two things are at the core.
Grace Lee was forward-looking until the end – which signifies a remarkable optimism. Was that optimism also something that kept her going?
For her, activism was about the journey; she didn’t care as much about the final goal. And she was so interested in young people. I suppose anyone under 80 was young to her, but in a way, her interactions and conversations with younger people were a way for her to continue to evolve her ideas. At a point when she wasn’t able to be active — to go door to door and be part of the community — people were coming to her, and that exchange of ideas continued the forward momentum. But at heart I think she really was an optimist. She wanted to make change, and struggle was something that she embraced.
For Grace, what was the thread running through all the movements she was involved in?
She always talked about the movement to become more human. When I first met her, being someone who grew up in the era of ’90s identity politics — consciousness of race and gender and all this stuff — I would ask, What does it feel like to be a Chinese woman in a black movement? And she would always remind me that she didn’t think of herself as a Chinese American because there was no Chinese American movement when she was younger. And she didn’t think of herself as a woman, because there was no woman’s movement. As one Detroit activist said, “We never thought about Grace as a Chinese-American. She was just Grace.” I didn’t know her in her more formative years, but there’s something very human about Grace that appeals to so many audiences, and I think that’s why the film has resonated with so many different kinds of communities.
As you worked on the film was she a collaborator? Tell us about the process, and your interactions with Grace and what it meant for you.
This is the amazing thing about Grace: She was so curious about what I was doing and also fascinated. She was always turning the question back on me. Grace was infinitely curious about other people, and that back-and-forth set the tone for the film. As we filmed over many years and went into the editing room, I realized that this intergenerational conversation we were having and that she was having with all kinds of people through the film was a large part of who she is.
Grace was energized by young people. I think she really saw the potential of this conversation that’s happening between generations that allows something special to happen: Learning from the past but not getting stuck in the past. I don’t think there’s enough of that happening. Everyone is stuck in their own age group.
Did working with Grace make you feel any differently about what it is to be 80-something or 90-something?
Grace broke the mold of my thinking in so many different ways, including about aging, because I just saw her as my peer. Anytime now that I complain about being older or tired, I remember when we were filming “The Grace Lee Project” and thinking, Can we just take a break for a little while? She was wearing us all out, this young crew in our early 30s.
As a philosopher Grace also asked such deep questions that made you pause and start thinking about time in a different way. Grace Lee Boggs once said, “I didn’t really know myself until I was in my 80s and wrote my autobiography.” So that’s encouraging. I still have a few decades to figure it out.
To what extent is this a film about aging, and what did you learn?
Toward the end of the film Grace talks a lot about aging, and in the last two or three years of her life she talks about it much more publicly and struggles with it. But I’d never thought of the film as having anything to do with all this until during the course of making it, I was asked to be part of a residency about films on aging. I said, My film is about this incredible woman and her life, and they pointed out to me that she was an incredible example of aging in place — how you can be so active and engaged. I hadn’t even thought about that, because we’re so biased to not think about aging in this society, it’s just something you don’t want to talk about.
So, I think one of the most interesting things that I took away is that she was able to age gracefully in her own home with her own community. People visited her every day, checked in on her, made sure she had food. She had no living relatives — she didn’t have children — but she had built a community of philosophical children and grandchildren, a huge network of people, and it was really beautiful to see that she was able to stay in her own home where she was comfortable and have people come to her. That invigorated her, and it’s something I think about when I think about my aging parents and my own eventual aging process. I would like to age in the way that she did.
Even toward her death I was still learning from Grace. Here she was, not as vibrant a person as we see in my film, but even when she’s bedridden and under 24-hour care, as she was for the last year, I would visit her and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human at the end of your life. It was so profound to see how I could still learn from her in other ways.
What do you hope most that people who see the film take away from it about Grace, about age, about the issues she cared about and how they intertwine?
I’m hoping people will be inspired by her life and actions, and also by her ideas about what it means to be a revolutionary. I’m definitely inspired by her to not just act in the world but also to reflect. I think that was one of the biggest learnings. So much of our lives, we’re just moving forward without reflecting, doing this or that because we need to achieve a certain goal, but the journey is actually something that she embodied, and I hope that people who watch the film can get something out of it for their own journey.
Watch the Trailer
- “American Revolutionary: Grace Lee Boggs” can be streamed on Netflix and Hulu.
- Click here for community screenings in your area, or to request a screening
- Click here to learn more about the film, plan a viewing event and download supporting materials
- Visit the “American Revolutionary” website