Most people go through their lives, believing in ideals, yet never taking any action. They simply go with the flow of the world, not caring where history might take them. Others, however, wish to alter that flow. They do not believe that their fate is set in stone, and they dare to change it – make it better.
Grace Lee Boggs is such a person. Born in 1915, Grace experienced the entirety of the twentieth century in the United States. She is a Marxist theoretician and a Black Power activist, who worked closely with the likes of C. L. R. James. She also worked with James Boggs, who later became her husband. She has lived in Detroit for more than 50 years and considers that place to be better, in some ways, than cities like New York.
“I feel so sorry for people who’re not living in Detroit. Detroit gives a sense of epochs of civilization, in a way that you don’t get in a city like New York. I mean, it’s obvious, by looking at it, what was doesn’t work,” she says in American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, a 2013 documentary directed by Grace Lee.
Filmmaker Grace Lee met the activist Grace Lee Boggs about a decade ago, when she was working on another documentary she called The Grace Lee Project. Essentially, the purpose of the earlier project was to meet with other Asian American women, who share the common name, and define a common set of stereotypes that have come to be associated with the name Grace Lee.
In that sense, American Revolutionary is a result of Lee serendipitously meeting Grace and being especially impressed by her. After all, Grace is a 99-year-old woman, yet still is more energetic, more active, and more passionate than most young people I know. Hearing her ideas in the documentary definitely made me question certain things I thought were always a given.
In the documentary, Grace says “You begin with a protest, but you have to move on from there. Just being angry, just being resentful, just being outraged does not constitute revolution.” Coming from a person who has been married to a Black Panther, whom the FBI has classified as a ‘rabble-rouser,’ and who has favoured Malcolm X over Martin Luther King Jr., this statement is highly interesting. Is it that after decades of struggle, Grace has lost her interest in violent struggle, or is it that she has acquired wisdom that may be still hidden from us?
Grace herself answers that question in American Revolutionary. The documentary is structured in such a way that it is a biography of Grace Lee Boggs, and an essay on her philosophy at the same time. Admittedly, the documentary attempts a monumental task: Fitting almost a century of self-reflection, contemplation, and theorizing into 82 minutes. To be fair, I do not think any documentary could do this task proper justice. However, I do think that it comes pretty close.
Cinema Politica will be screening American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs on Monday, April 13 at 7 P.M. at Concordia University. If you are still asking yourself what revolution means to you, if you are still asking yourself what your collective struggle means to you, the life of Grace Lee Boggs will definitely get you thinking. You might not find the answers you’re looking for, but perhaps you might discover new directions.