National PBS premieres Grace Lee Boggs film
Filmmaker Grace Lee says project evolved slowly
By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen
“Grace Lee is like the John Smith of Asian America,” says Missouri-born filmmaker Grace Lee of her very common name. As a post-graduate film student at UCLA, Lee embarked on a journey to simultaneously document the lives of women with her same name and challenge stereotypes about Asian American women prevalent in mainstream media.
The resulting film, “The Grace Lee Project,” was released in 2005.
While working on “The Grace Lee Project,” she saw a flier on campus, promoting an appearance by Detroit activist, philosopher, civil rights legend and Michigan Citizen contributor Grace Lee Boggs, with whom Lee was not familiar. After the lecture, Lee asked Boggs if she would talk to her about her film. Boggs’ response? “Come to Detroit.”
In Detroit, Lee says she immediately realized she would have to make a longer film about Grace Lee Boggs. But that wouldn’t be an easy task. “How do you tell a story about a 90-year-old woman who spends most of her time having conversations and thinking? That’s not very visual or interesting to watch,” Lee says.
Another challenge, was the paucity of film and photographic records of the Boggses. Grace Lee and activist/author husband James Boggs, were never big celebrities, Lee says, fortunately, they documented their history over the years in their prolific writings.
Lee crafted — slowly over 12 years, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” which will debut nationally on public television June 30. “The film only could have been made this way, if we were able to take time and (capture) evolution,” Lee told the Michigan Citizen.
Although many Detroiters, may be familiar with Boggs’ work, “American Revolutionary,” also acquaints viewers with her biography — from her childhood as the daughter of a successful restaurateur in New York, to her first experience as an activist fighting the rat epidemic in Black neighborhoods in Chicago, her life with James, and after his passing.
Because of the close relationship Lee and Boggs developed over the years, Lee is able to capture some very personal moments with Boggs in a way few, if any, ever have.
“My goal was to capture something we experienced really early on watching her speak at a panel around 2000, how she challenged people in the room,” says Lee of making the film. “I’m lucky to keep coming to Detroit to learn from her: How do (I) share that with people?”
Over the years, people on planes and in airports have consistently asked Lee why she would be going to Detroit of all places.
“At first, like a lot of people, I was really struck by the absence — what they call ruin porn; I had never seen anything like that before — but at the same time my entire existence in Detroit has been shaped by Grace Lee Boggs and her community and colleagues,” Lee says. “Really getting to see Detroit summer in many different incarnations. Getting to see someone like Julia Putnam (founder of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit). Those things are really impactful for me, because they are not about seeing buildings come and go — Starbucks in Midtown or new stores — but it’s about how individuals grow and become part of something deeper. That’s what I’ve been most impressed by.”
As the film ends, it’s hard to tell where Boggs’ work ends and Lee’s begins.
“To me, Grace’s impact is how I view my own community. Going back and forth to Detroit over all these years has really shaped how I view my own community, Los Angeles and the work I’m choosing to do there,” Lee says. “There are thousands of Grace Lee Boggs already in our midst we can learn from. I feel more inclined to learn from my own parents and elders down the street because of Boggs.”
Lee says she wouldn’t call herself an activist “in the way that Grace is an activist. I’m a filmmaker” working for greater social awareness from that medium.”
Currently, she is working with an organization called Active Voice to use documentary film screenings, including “American Revolutionary,” which has won numerous awards, to galvanize different community groups toward collaborative action.
In order to bring Boggs’ vision of the world to life, Lee says, Americans need to have a better understanding of American history, “the real American history, in a way that’s connected to people not just institutions or what you read in the books or get from (mainstream) media.”
“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” debuts as part of the acclaimed POV-series on June 30 at 10 p.m. on Detroit PBS channel 56, and over the month of July. Visit dptv.org/schedule for listings. Michigan Citizen columnist Shea Howell, featured in “American Revolutionary,” will be available for questions during a live webstream and online Q and A event, July 1 at 7 p.m. at https://ovee.itvs.org/screenings/ys2mk.