Exclusive Interview: Grace Lee (Director, "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs")

About two weeks ago, I was able to watch a free screening of American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, and I was introduced to a woman whom I’d heard about thanks to social media, but has never really understood the impact of her social work. During that same week, I was able to talk to the director of the film, also named Grace Lee.

In the interview below, Lee and I discuss the film’s newest accolade—a Peabody Award—and how Lee came to find what she didn’t she didn’t know she was looking for Boggs. We also discussed the hot issue at the time (and technically still is a hot issue despite it not being featured in the news), the unrest in Baltimore triggered over the police-involved death of Freddie Gray.

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is currently available for free viewing on PBS until May 24. Definitely check it out for yourself. How does it feel to get a Peabody Award?

It feels amazing! It’s an incredible honor and it’s really exciting. I didn’t even know it had been submitted; it had been submitted through POV. It’s a really nice surprise. To me, it just means that more people will be able to learn about this incredible story of Grace Lee Boggs and everybody involved in 100 years of social movement.

One thing that I realized as I was watching it is that in history books, I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the like, but I’d never learned about people like Grace Lee Boggs. What do you think about the probable lack of awareness about who she is and what she’s done?

I think part of the reason is because Grace, like a lot of grassroots activists, aren’t out in the spotlight. There are so many people doing incredible community work and just staying part of the community…Even in the film, there are no images [of Boggs]. I used what I could from Grace’s collection, but they weren’t out on the street [self-promoting]. I think they were just out there doing the work.

I think what attracted me to her story was exactly the same reason [as you]—why hadn’t I heard of this woman? I just couldn’t believe she existed and that this story hadn’t been told. …Learning about her, I couldn’t believe nobody had [told her story] before. I just became obsessed with asking the questions and figuring out how the daughter of immigrants became part of the black community and part of this rich movement in Detroit. I think there are a lot of stories that we never hear about, and to tell a story like Grace Lee Boggs’, to me is a way to look at others’, like who is the Grace Lee Boggs in the New York community that we never hear about, or even in your family or down the street?

In the documentary, you say that you didn’t know you were looking for someone like Grace until you met her. What would you say you were looking for?

I’m interested in community work and I’m interested in human rights social movements, but I never really knew of Asian-American women who were doing that. We don’t hear those kind of stories…In general, there are no stories [like this] that we learn about in history books. First of all, [we] don’t even learn about women in movements. I…was a history major, I sort of sought out [these stories] myself, but to actually find somebody who is in her 80s and very much a part of these movements is an incredible discovery and affirmation that there are people who think this way, who I can relate to and want to learn from and are a part of American history. She’s an American revolutionary, not an Asian-American revolutionary. She’s part of looking at American history in a new way.

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One of the themes of the documentary, almost like a refrain, is Grace saying in so many words that thinking outside the box leads to change. Do you think people a lot of that nowadays? Since there is a new wave of activists, do you think that they embody this “thinking outside the box” ideology?

Well, I know in one part, Grace has that one quote in the film where she thinks the radical movement has overestimated the role of activism and underestimated the role of reflection, and I think she embodied the need for both. She’s this hardcore intellectual and philosopher, and she could use those ideas because she was so grounded in community and community work. That combination is what I think could potentially be most powerful because it’s not off in a ivory tower theorizing about social change or somebody just protesting or getting angry or somebody just doing marches without reflecting on what it all means and where it’s all going.

I think there are definitely people doing that [introspection] right now. You see it in a lot of the movements happening right now as we speak. It’s exciting. I don’t think everybody’s there, but I think if you do it long enough [you can]. That’s one reason why I made this film; I was interested in these questions about how do you sustain a life of activism, how do you keep from getting burned out? With all of this chaos in the world, how do you make sense of it all?

Grace also said in the film, “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you choose how you want to think.” What do you think about that statement in relation to what we’ve been talking about?

It goes back to “I didn’t know I was looking for Grace until I found her.” As someone…who grew up in the ’80s, I didn’t know how to make sense of all of the conservatism around  me and even though it’s happening now, you don’t have to be the dominant ideology or political system.

I think there are ways people resist and there are people like Grace who are constantly reflecting and moving forward. If you don’t have that within yourself, you’re just going to get stuck. While making the film, I really took that to heart because of many things that are happening in the world. Just having some kind of framework to think about history, current events, and all the chaos—war, poverty, racism, everything around us. How do you think about that without just getting depressed all the time, you know? There’s just got to be something beyond.

I just appreciated watching this woman and how she struggled through it throughout her lifetime, starting with Hegel in college to Marx, to the ideas of King and Malcolm X and going back to King, going through the rebellion in Detroit, getting older. It was just sort of like a blueprint. She’s not the answer to everything, but it’s a really great way to get in touch with someone who has been through it and has been thinking deeply and acting for so many years. We’re all going to make our own paths in a different way…and we have to make our own way from where we are at this moment… She…learned from history but she didn’t get stuck in it.

She’s been at the forefront of people helping Detroit get back on track and now there’s a school named after her and her husband James. What do you think about her capacity to still be affect change in Detroit?

Her legacy is incredible. The people who started the Boggs School, [like] Julia Putnam, whose in the film, she was 16 years old and was the first volunteer at Detroit Summer because she was looking for a venue or opportunity to think about Detroit in a different way. I think Grace and James and their colleagues put it out there that there is a different way to think about Detroit [and] it really made an impact on her.

Grace herself didn’t have any biological children, but I feel she has an incredible legacy of people, sort of her philosophical children, who are doing incredible things in Detroit and are committed to the city in the same way she is. For me to see that as an outsider is incredibly moving and forced me to think about…where I live in a different way. I needed to go to Detroit all these years to think about how I live and where I live in Los Angeles and my own commitment to the city that I live in.

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Another thing in the documentary that struck me as interesting is that Grace would always insist on conversation. What do you think about the power of conversation and Grace’s relationship to conversing with people?

It seems almost obvious that conversation can lead to these things, but in a way, it’s not obvious because we always think about these big movements, protests and marches and things like that in terms of changing policy and government. But…the conversation is the building block of creating a movement, creating the next thing.

To see that become more in the forefront as she’s gotten older because that’s what she can do still, it’s really inspiring because you don’t need a whole lot to start a conversation. You just have to have the willingness to engage civilly with another person who may not share the same ideas as you and see where you can go from there. If you can agree, to have a civil conversation, I think you can move forward on many levels.

It started with a conversation that I made this film. I didn’t even know what I was going to do when I first started out, when I first met her. I just knew that there [were] these very generous invitations to come to Detroit and see what she was doing. I had to percolate on what the film actually was for many years, but it all started with simple conversation.

In all of your conversations with her, was there anything that stuck out to you or something you added to your own life?

There are so many things. I really think it’s just her example of really always seeing an opportunity of meeting another person and exchanging ideas as an opportunity to learn. Never getting stuck of being defeated.

There are so many great quotes from Grace; it was so difficult to make this film because of money or there wasn’t enough footage, resources, whatever. There was always a Grace Lee Boggs quote that kept us going. [For instance], I [didn’t] know whether to cut [a] section or if it belongs in the film, and we would think about her saying something like, “You make your path by walking; you just have to do it and just start going forward.” I think that comes from her philosophy, her Hegelian philosophy, seeing through the negative and trying to come to something new. That really applied to filmmaking, which can be a really difficult haul. I think we got a lot of encouragement from those words as we were editing.

My last question, I have to set up with the fact that  right now I’m watching what’s happening in the news with Baltimore that directly goes back to what Grace was speaking to in the film and what she’s dealt with in other parts of the country, especially when she says that there are black cities that are not run by black people, which seems to be the common denominator with how these blow-ups happen. With all that’s going on, what do you think Grace’s message would be to people trying to make sense of this?

I think she says it in the film when she’s talking about Detroit with Bill Moyers about that awful riot, and she says, “We called it the rebellion.” And what they’re pointing out is that it’s an outburst of pain and anger and standing up against this system that’s…created these riots. I think she definitely, herself, is of the non-violent persuasion, but not without belittling or not understanding why people are so upset and angry…

The thing about what’s happening now…that’s why…Grace’s perspective is so deep. It just keeps happening over and over again. 1967 Detroit, 1968 Baltimore, Newark, all those places. It’s just kind of [like] “I’ve seen this before.” I recently rewatched American Revolutionary, I think it was right after Ferguson, and I was like, “Oh my God, these images!” It’s just upsetting…I appreciate Grace and her perspective, given that history just seems to keep repeating itself, and just digging into the ideas and really struggling with how do we move on beyond this. If you don’t have that deep reflection and struggle to think about it, it’ll just keep happening over and over again, reaction upon reaction.

Cover photo: Grace Lee. Interior photos: Grace Lee Boggs, Boggs with Lee. Photo credit: Quyen Tran