Filmmaker Grace Lee’s ‘American Revolutionary’ Captures Detroit Movements

‘Making a Way Out of No Way’

The 98-year old Asian American activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs is the inspiration behind Grace Lee’s film.

story by CHELSEA HAWKINS
A version of this story originally published in KoreAm Journal September 2013.

Gil Scott-Heron was right: the revolution will not be televised. It will begin with a conversation—at least, according to Grace Lee Boggs, the Detroit-based Chinese American and black power activist. Boggs, 95, is the subject of a new documentary, American Revolutionary, a film of ideas that centers on the art of good conversation and community outreach. Directed by Korean American filmmaker, Grace Lee (no relation), American Revolutionary invites the viewer into Boggs’ home and into the beauty and hope that keeps Detroit driving onwards. 

Lee met Boggs 13 years ago when she first interviewed the activist for her film The Grace Lee Project, a documentary on the many different Asian American women who share the moniker but little else. Lee grew up in an era of identity politics and her films explore issues pertinent to Asian Americans, while Boggs is a philosopher inspired by Georg Hegel, a German idealist who focused on the dialectic, or the exploration of intellectual ideas through conversation. 

“I had never imagined someone like Grace Lee Boggs existing, rooted in the black community for so long and I was sort of sucked in,” Lee said during a phone interview in late July. “[Boggs is] somebody who continues, even to this day, to inspire younger people especially to become leaders, to take charge of what they want society, or the neighborhood, or America to be.”

For the next decade, Lee would frequent Detroit, take a seat at Boggs’ kitchen table and discuss issues regarding activism, organizing and community building. Through this dialectic, Lee was inspired and profoundly changed. 

“She’s such a complex, fascinating woman who has been kind of a conduit for so many generations, so many ideas,” she said. 

Boggs wasn’t always a radical revolutionary. She was originally primed for academia, enrolling as an undergraduate at Bernard College at the age of 16 and receiving a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940. 

“And, suddenly, it all seemed barren to me, it all seemed wrong,” Boggs says in the film as black and white images of protestors fill the screen. “Union Square was full of people because of the Depression, and, even though I was not an activist growing up at all, I think the seeds were laid in my family … I felt, from the very beginning, that there were changes that needed to take place.”

After graduation, Boggs couldn’t find her place within the ivory towers and took a low-paying library job at the University of Chicago, renting a room in a low-income black neighborhood. In the film, Boggs recalls being warned about the rats that infested the building and becoming brutally aware of the kind of conditions many people of color were living. Such experiences in Chicago catapulted her into the tenants’ rights movement.

Living in the neglected black neighborhoods of Chicago and fighting for affordable, safe housing opened Boggs’ eyes to the greater struggle facing marginalized communities. She quickly became engaged with the Worker’s Party, socialist political groups, and intellectual activist circles. In the 1960s, she also became embedded in the Civil Rights Movement, helping organize the historic March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech.  

Grace sits before a “Welcome Friends” sign in her home.

One of the most striking aspects of Boggs’ personality is her unwavering faith in human courage. In the film, it seems, that despite how challenging the circumstance or how heavy the conversation, Boggs wears a large, toothy smile. “How does [Grace] have this energy still? How does she have this optimism? Where does that come from?” Lee marveled. “It’s not like Grace has all the answers, but I think that it’s important what she says in the film: It’s not just reacting or acting, or protesting major injustices, but it’s also taking the time to reflect and see, ‘OK, well, what does this all mean? Where is it going?’”

While Lee says she always knew she wanted to make a film about Boggs, she was never sure what that film would look like. Even after filming began three years ago, she wasn’t sure what American Revolutionary would become. But motherly love motivated her to see the project through to the end.

“I had just had my son when I realized I wanted to make this film,” Lee said. “I wanted him to know who Grace Lee Boggs is and the movement and the history and the people behind it.” 

But Lee’s documentary is about far more than Boggs; it’s about the rise and fall of the city of Detroit. The Long Summer of ’67 was marked by race riots throughout many major American cities, and Detroit saw some of the worst protests, with five consecutive days of violence and looting, and dozens dead and injured. 

“When Grace first moved [to Detroit] in 1953, it was dynamic—two million people lived there—it was called the Paris of the Midwest, it was the center of American industry and capitalism,” Lee explained. “By the time I got there in 2000, it had already been declining for more than 30 years.”

The city of Detroit, which recently became the largest U.S. city in history to file for bankruptcy, has indeed had a tumultuous past. A critical space during the Civil Rights Movement, an American industry powerhouse brought to its knees by an increasingly global market, it has seen and felt U.S. history in a way many other cities have not. This story of Detroit is intimately tied to the story of Boggs, who made it her home. 

“On the way from Grace’s house from downtown Detroit, you just pass blocks and blocks of abandoned lots, empty houses, buildings that are just falling apart, and I had never really seen that before,” Lee says. “[But] it’s not a city of ghosts, it’s a city of people who have been living there for many decades, resilient and surviving and—as Jimmy Boggs (Grace Lee Boggs’ deceased husband) used to say—‘making a way out of no way.’ That really struck me.” 

More than just about Boggs’ growth as a radical activist, American Revolutionary is very much a story about the people who are carrying Detroit forward.

More than just about Boggs’ growth as a radical activist, American Revolutionary is very much a story about the people who are carrying Detroit forward.

“I hope that everyone sees this [film] not as the ‘evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,’ but as the evolution of each of us,” Boggs said after a screening of American Revolutionary at the Los Angeles Film Festival in July. 

Reflecting on the power of individuals in the push for change, Boggs continued, saying, “One of the things I learned very early is that every crisis is not only a danger, but an opportunity and how we internalize that, how we realize that we’re not just like a school of fish, that each of us has the capacity to think, to reflect, to see that in everything there is both a negative and a positive and that we can create the positive.” 

As Lee explained, it’s easy to feel “enamored” by the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and discouraged when it seems we cannot have a similar impact today, but those movements weren’t always so grand—they started small, ideas hatched by a few. 

“Somebody had to have a conversation about it, and those conversations led to smaller group meetings—like in Grace’s living room—which led to bigger networks and on and on,” the filmmaker says. “[Grace] doesn’t know what the next American revolution might be, but you might be able to imagine it if your imagination were rich enough.” 

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