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American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs 2013

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Good Docs
Produced by Grace Lee, Caroline Libresco, and Austin Wilkin
Directed by Grace Lee
DVD , color, 83 min.

Sr. High - General Adult
Activism, African Americans, Chinese Americans, Philosophy, Politics, Social Movements

Date Entered: 04/08/2014

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is a biographical film charting the life course of Grace Lee Boggs (“Boggs”), a Chinese-American activist, philosopher, writer, speaker, and conversationalist. Boggs has been politically engaged in support of the African-American community throughout her life. Director Grace Lee (“Lee”) describes the filming process as a decade-long, “unfinished conversation” with her subject. Lee’s in-depth study of Boggs’ life is fascinating and intensely personal; watching it is much like witnessing a lively and intimate conversation. The documentary shows how Boggs’ sense of identity and political philosophies have evolved and manifested over decades; it is a celebration of both activism and the ideas that engender action. For Boggs, ideas matter, and conversation that examines the implications of one’s ideas contains the seeds of activism.

The film also serves as an instructive overview of twentieth century social history, as many social movements are key to Boggs’ life story. Her changing individual identity is evident as we follow her movement from membership in the Socialist Workers’ Party, and then on to adoption of Civil Rights, Black Power, and Feminist ideologies. This evolution culminates in a more integrated, multi-faceted, and multi-cultural approach from the 1990s onward. The documentary also serves as a social history of the city of Detroit, where Boggs has resided since 1953. Though Boggs is Chinese-American, the film does not cover Asian American social movements or issues per se; instead, the film charts the African-American movement, as that reflects Boggs’ lifelong focus.

Using stills, archival footage, and interviews, the film chronologically covers the ideas, social movements, and events that were instrumental in Boggs life. She was born in 1915 and received a doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College, where she embraced Hegel’s philosophy of change. She moved to Chicago, intensively studied Marx, and formed a political partnership with West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James. She moved to Detroit in 1953 and it was there she met and married James Boggs, an African-American political activist and autoworker. The couple became involved in the “Freedom Now” all-black political party in the early 1960s and then joined the Black Power movement, initially identifying more with Malcolm’s militancy than with King’s non-violence. The 1967 Detroit riots (Boggs calls them a rebellion) were a turning point; Boggs’ ideas evolved, and she eventually embraced principles of non-violence. She explains that it took her some time to learn that non-violence “respects the capacity of human beings to grow . . . their souls.” In the 1970s Coleman Young became the first black mayor of Detroit and other black political firsts followed; but the ascendancy of black political power was not a panacea. The auto industry was declining and unemployment and crime rates were rising. The Black Power movement alone could not solve these economic and social problems. The old entrenched economic model proved ineffective.

At about the 56-minute mark, the film reaches an emotional crescendo when, at a speaking engagement, Boggs explains how political activists can remain motivated and avoid burnout. Using herself as an example, Boggs describes her steadfast involvement in the Detroit community she loves. She was able to grow and try various strategies, learning to pay attention to what did and didn’t work. She avoided unrealistic expectations of a quick fix. Boggs repeats Martin Luther King’s advice that young people in our dying cities need direct action programs to transform both themselves and their institutions simultaneously. The film wraps up describing the “Detroit Summer” urban renewal program Boggs founded in 1992. This multicultural youth program fosters projects such as urban gardening and alternative transportation. And we get a glimpse of the future site of the Boggs Educational Center, a new project that is just beginning.

The film would support curriculum in economics, ethnic studies, history, philosophy, political science, and sociology. It would be an ideal discussion starter about the relationship of ideas to action. It has great potential to educate and inspire students regarding service learning programs, urban sociology and renewal, and community and political organizing. As the documentary ends, Boggs, a champion of radical and constructive change, advises young people to begin with protest and move on from there, evolving from outrage to reinvention. The time has come for a new dream, and she encourages youth to imagine the next revolution.