American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs: Film Review

American Revolutionary - H 2014
Quyen Tran
This award-winning documentary sheds light on the work of a remarkable woman.

Grace Lee's documentary examines the life and career of the notable social activist who's still going strong in her late nineties.

Nearly a decade ago, filmmaker Grace Lee made a documentary about her search for Asian-American women bearing the same name as hers. While The Grace Lee Project garnered critical acclaim and success on the festival circuit, perhaps its most fruitful result is the director’s follow-up project devoted to one of the women she found. Chronicling the decades-long pioneering social activism of its now 98-years-young subject, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is an entertainingly revealing portrait of a remarkable woman.  

Her surname stemming from her marriage to the equally social-minded African-American James Boggs, who died in 1993, this nonagenarian is physically frail but still sharp as a tack, elucidating the evolution of her thinking with a youthful vigor and articulateness. Born in 1915 to Chinese-American immigrants living in New York -- her father owned a successful Chinese restaurant on Broadway -- she became enthralled with the writings of Hegel and Marx while attending Barnard, and later received her PhD at Bryn Mawr. After moving to Chicago in the 1940s, she became involved in championing the rights of tenants in low-income housing.

She married black auto worker James Boggs in 1953 and moved with him to Detroit, where she still lives. “I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit,” she announces early in the film, in a statement that seems counter-intuitive to anyone familiar with that city’s economic struggles.

Her avowed Marxism and extensive social activism brought her to the attention of the FBI, which compiled a thick dossier on her. She and her husband became key players in the ‘60s black power movement, initially allying themselves with Malcolm X. “Violence is often very therapeutic for the revolutionary forces,” she declared in 1968. But they later came to embrace Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent philosophy.

The film is often dizzying in its account of Boggs’ extensive activities in Detroit as the city went through the decline of the auto industry and the white flight that made it predominately African-American. One of the more evocative segments concerns her 1992 founding of Detroit Summer, a multicultural youth organization that exists to this day.

Featuring laudatory comments by such controversial figures as Angela Davis and Bill Ayers, the film also includes an amusing encounter between Boggs and Danny Glover in which she proceeds to dump a pile of recommended literature on his lap. “Six books? Okay…” the bemused actor responds.

Shot over the course of many years, it also includes footage of her watching Barack Obama’s inauguration on television. But when asked if she would have liked to have been there in person, her practical response is to point out that she would have been primarily concerned about the availability of public restrooms.

In an era in which social activism is far too often derided, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs represents a deeply moving examination of the power of a single individual to affect change.

Opens March 21 (First Pond Entertainment)

Production: Chicken and Egg Pictures

Director: Grace Lee

Producers: Grace Lee, Caroline Libresco, Austin Wilkin

Executive producer: Joan Huang

Directors of photography: Jerry A. Henry, Quyen Tran

Editor: Kim Roberts

Composer: Vivek Maddala

Not rated, 82 min.