American Revolutionary

PBS Premiere: June 30, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

Filmmaker Geoffrey Smith (Presumed Guilty, POV 2010; The English Surgeon, POV 2009) spoke with Grace Lee about the making of her film, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.

Grace Lee: I first met Grace Lee Boggs while I was making another film called The Grace Lee Project. It's something that started 14 years ago when I was still in film school. That film looks at the many different women named Grace Lee and unpacks the stereotype of Asian American women as being overachieving, the best at everything, all of these kinds of things.

I happened to be walking the hallways at UCLA where I was going to film school, and I saw a flyer that advertised that Grace Lee Boggs was coming to speak. And at that moment I remembered this time back when I was in college, when a history professor of mine had told me about this woman named Grace Lee Boggs who was a socialist philosopher and she shared your name, that's what he told me. And I thought, oh, that's who that is. I need to meet this person. So I went to the meeting and after it was over I introduced myself and told her I was making this film about all these women named Grace Lee. And she said, "Well you should come to Detroit." And so that's what we did.

POV: What was it about Grace that triggered that,"I've just got to make a film here" feeling?

Lee: Going to Detroit was really transformative because Detroit is unlike any other city I'd ever been in in my life. Meeting Grace and her community, seeing the house that she'd been living in for 50 years, in the midst of this working class African American community, and there were just so many questions. Like who is this person? How did she get here? I knew even beyond our two-hour interview for The Grace Lee Project that there was a bigger story here. I knew that she was someone who broke the mold in every way. Over time as we continued these conversations, I gradually got to understand what the film would be about.

POV: How would you describe what the film's really about, as in themes, not descriptions?

Lee: Well I think the film, it's many things, but I think on a really basic level it's an ongoing conversation with Grace Lee Boggs about the evolving nature of revolution, or her evolving idea of what revolution can be -- whether that's in regard to social movements happening within her lifetime or whether it's evolution that she sees in the city of Detroit or within herself. It works on so many different levels, and that's the beauty of Grace Lee Boggs and her story. It's so complex and rich and layered. To try to enter in only one aspect would be a disservice.

POV: I was struck by how humble and in a way how disdainful she is of the limelight, and just wants people to actually engage much more with what she says rather than who she is. Can you explain that for me as someone who's coming at it fresh, and realizing the true sort of integrity of people of that generation and indeed, Grace?

Lee: Grace is somebody who it's not about her. Even though she has written her autobiography, she's written many books and articles, it's always in service of something larger than her -- the ideas or a project or shedding light on something else that she thinks is interesting and she wants your opinion about. I remember while we were making the film she would say, well you should really go to talk to these people, because you should meet these people in Detroit. And of course I wanted to go meet them because I'm curious about people and thought maybe that would be part of the story. In the end it was always coming back to what is it about her that keeps me coming back to her? And it took a while to figure that out. It was just an instant attraction, but it took making the film to really figure that out for myself.

POV: There's some mini history lessons or explanations in the film about Hegel and Marx and dialectics, which I think are really well done aesthetically. They give us such a platform, something to stand on alongside Grace, because that whole idea of the old and the new, the dialectic between two things is sort of a linchpin for her.

Lee: Ideas really are the bedrock of what Grace is about, and how do you convey that in a film is a really big challenge. We decided to do these mini 30-second lessons of Hegel in 30 seconds, Marx in 30 seconds, because these are ideas that have been so important to Grace's own trajectory in terms of her own thinking. It was a way to engage the audience in a way that you didn't have to go read a big long book about Hegel or Marx. And I think dialectical thinking is really a foundation of who she is. It sounds a little corny but we actually tried to make the film a dialectical conversation in itself.

For Grace, it's about contradictions. And working through contradictions is a way for you to acknowledge the past, learn from the past, but not getting stuck in the past. And I think that's really a hallmark of who she is and how she's been able to continue to evolve. When she saw that Black Power wasn't necessarily working in Detroit after the 1967 rebellions, they were forced to come up with other ideas and to move through that.

POV: It's the power of all of us, as one of the many lessons that each of us can take from that film, is just that: it's don't get stuck in the past. And it's almost impossible for most of us, obviously, because we're just not that age to realize how many epochs and key moments in the 20th century that Grace has actually lived through. You were saying before, she didn't think of herself as a woman or a Chinese woman, because that whole identity or ideology just wasn't around.

Lee: I was kind of taken by the fact that she was this Chinese American woman in essentially a black community, a black movement. And I kept asking her questions about that. What was it like to be a Chinese woman in a black movement? And she kind of chastises me in The Grace Lee Project, where she says, "You keep asking me this question. You're stuck in this idea of all these categories. I didn't think of myself as Chinese because the Chinese American movement hadn't emerged, and I didn't think of myself as a woman because the women's movement hadn't emerged." And I remember when she said that, I was like, oh yeah. You forget. Here's somebody who was born in 1915, before women in America had the right to vote, two years before the Bolshevik revolution. It's so easy to engage with Grace as a peer that I tend to forget that she did live through these movements, but they weren't what was shaping her formatively when she got involved in social movements.

This kind of intergenerational dialogue which Grace loves to have is so valuable not just for me, but for her, because she also is exposed to what younger generations are thinking about, that she might be able to have her own perspective on. Invincible, who is a hip-hop artist in the film, she says, "I still have conversations with Grace about hip-hop." And I think that's really something that I've come away with while making the film, is I want to have these kinds of conversations with people about things I know nothing about, but I'm still willing to learn.

POV: In relation to the idea of building trust and getting close to people, even someone who's 60 years older, talk to us about the rewards but the challenges of that, because it's really inherent in documentary.

Lee: One of the things that just got reinforced over and over again, watching Grace, talking to Grace, observing Grace in conversation, is the importance of listening -- really listening. That is so important for a documentary filmmaker -- not just plowing through the questions, but figuring out there's something happening here that can take me to another place. It can take me to another question. And Grace is so good at that. You may be saying something really mundane to her, but she'll find a way to put that statement back to you in her own words that sounds brilliant. It really means that she's listening and processing it for herself and putting her stamp on it and putting it back to you. And that's really exciting, and this art of conversation is what she does so well.

POV: Grace continues to speak out, to be an activist. What can a new generation learn from her about building social movements?

Lee: What can a new generation learn from Grace Lee Boggs? I think younger people aren't even aware. For me, I studied social history, I studied the 60s in college, but that must seem like ancient history to millennials, or people growing up today. I think she really offers a perspective of somebody who has lived through and evolved through all of these different movements, that you can't get from day to day, present day activism. I think that knowledge that she has and her ability to evolve through the contradictions of these movements is something that's really useful. Somebody who embodies history like Grace in a very real way, it's such a gift to be able to talk to them. Maybe a younger generation could learn that there are probably scores of Grace Lee Boggses that they're not even aware of. This one happened to write books and be active and have a documentary made about her. But I think that everybody has a story and everybody has something to contribute. I think that's what Grace always tries to instill in young people themselves.

POV: The term revolutionary had taken on connotations of violent upheaval. How does Grace define the term revolutionary as also distinct from rebellion?

Lee: The distinction between rebellion and revolution as talked about by Grace Lee Boggs is really talking about rebellion as an outburst of anger. It's what we think about when we think of violent protests and people overtaking the state in revolution. The definition of revolution that Grace talks about, she's had many different incarnations of revolution in her life, but the one that she talks about in the film is where you really think about revolution and the word evolution together, or how evolution is part of revolution. She talks about how she, through the rebellions of the 60s, had to learn that they had to look inward and, and change themselves, change ourselves to change the world. That's really a simplistic way of summarizing it, but the nature of revolution I think for Grace Lee Boggs is that it's always evolving. You can't pinpoint it.

POV: We talked about her being an icon for some people. She resists that, but as an Asian American woman what does the Asian American community think of her or how does the fact that she was involved with the black movement for so long impact on that? It's a question you can really answer well because she's your ancestor in an ethnic sense.

Lee: I think what's really exciting to me about Grace Lee Boggs and what drew me to her is the fact that she was an Asian American who wasn't biologically defined by being Asian American. Because she was somebody who was involved in the black movement and had lived in the African American community for so many years, it really expands my idea of what an Asian American is. By the same token, when she was part of the all-black Freedom Now Party, a self-consciously non-black person in the all-black Freedom Now Party, makes us rethink what Black Power was. And so I think that there she is again, just by her actions, expanding our ideas of what these categories that are already just categories can be. And that's what's exciting about Grace Lee Boggs for me, as an Asian American, is that she resists categorization.

When she watched the finished film with an audience, I think she was incredibly moved and appreciative of how people engaged with the film. And I think she was very pleased with how much James Boggs was in the story. We're incredibly lucky to have the footage of James Boggs. It was actually a gift from Frances Reid, a veteran documentary filmmaker. She had this footage from Maine and Detroit that she had shot years ago and was just sitting on, and didn't do anything with it, so she just gave it to me and gave it to the production. We're so grateful, otherwise we would not have any images of James Boggs. And Grace, one of the things she said to me was she really saw how her and James's relationship was really an American love story. Part of that was that they both loved America enough to want to change it, which was so nice to hear that, and just a nice reminder of what a love story can be.

POV: What would you want the audience of this film to leave with?

Lee: I would hope that the film itself is a conversation starter. It is a conversation about many different things. And whatever it generates for the viewer, whether it's something personal, whether it's you connect to Grace Lee Boggs because of her ethnicity or her age or whatever, or her movement history, I think that there are things in the film that you can take away with and really apply either to your own life or your own world view. What I've learned from having these conversations with Grace Lee Boggs is you never know where a conversation is going to take you. And hopefully this film might take you in places that you might not have imagined.