When you hear the word “revolutionary” you don’t think of a little old Asian American lady tottering around on a walker in Detroit. This documentary will teach you not to judge a book by its cover and you have to wonder how so many wonderfully strong role models were missed when we were being sold on the submissive Asian/Asian American woman stereotype. “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” helps redefine both Asian American history and the concept of rebellion. The entire movie is available, VoD, on the Point of View webpage for PBS.
Grace Lee Boggs was born in 1915 on the East Coast (Providence, Rhode Island). She grew up in New York City, went to Barnard College before getting her PhD in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College (1940). Grace was a Marxist and first came into contact with the black community in Chicago. She believed “the importance of negroes as a revolutionary force” and as a Marxist, she was under FBI surveillance. She translated essays from Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 into English.
Grace then moved to Detroit in 1953 and married James Boggs, an African American man who had been born in Marion Junction, Alabama in 1919 and was an activist as well as an auto worker.
The Boggses eventually split with the Marxism and focused on the Black Rights Movements. Grace Lee Boggs weighs in on both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She comes out in favor of non-violent protest.
In Detroit, there was a heavy prejudice that left the Detroit police characterized as a “white occupation army,” setting up the 1967 Detroit Riots. Grace Lee Boggs prefers to call them a rebellion, commenting that “Violence is often very therapeutic for revolutionary forces. Sometimes it can help to escalate the mobilization of the revolutionary forces.”
Director Korean American Grace Lee (no relation) shows us the ruins of Detroit. Her interviews with Boggs are informal like a family movie, without an overly fussy concern for the background. Archival clips from newsreels and TV shows in both black and white and color show both the atmosphere of a bygone era as well as the extent of the Boggses involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Grace Lee Boggs and her husband James were not about headlines or front page photos. They believed in the importance of deep conversations and embracing change. Grace Lee Boggs feels that too many have “underestimated the role of reflection.”
You, like director Grace Lee, may not see revolution in a garden or a community mural, but by the end of this documentary, you’ll want to re-think your image of revolution and the activists behind such movements. What does revolution mean? For Grace Lee Boggs, “rebellion is an outburst of anger” and “revolution is evolution.” “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” is available, VoD, on the Point of View webpage for PBS.