Documenting Change: The Evolution of Grace Lee

Grace Lee Boggs and Grace Lee | Courtesy of Grace Lee
Grace Lee Boggs and Grace Lee | Courtesy of Grace Lee.

My first encounter with Grace Lee's filmmaking came in 2002, with her short "Barrier Device." It starred actress Sandra Oh, still three years away from landing her career-making role on "Grey's Anatomy," fumbling her way through bad breakups and awkward hook-ups. I thought the short was fantastic -- a bittersweet, poignant, funny yarn with a strong sense of storytelling. At the very least, it felt like an auspicious start for an emergent director like Lee.

A dozen years later, at a sold-out screening in San Francisco's venerable Castro Theater, I watched Lee's latest, the feature documentary "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs." The film, which begins a theatrical run in Los Angeles on June 20 and will air on PBS's "POV" beginning June 30, is a marvelous portrait of a complicated figure. Boggs is a legend in progressive/activist circles, a now-99 year old Chinese American woman who was once a leading intellectual of black nationalism and has spent nearly 60 years as a community organizer in Detroit through that city's best and worst times. "American Revolutionary" acknowledges Boggs's accomplishments but to Lee's credit, it careful avoids descending into blind hagiography. Instead, as the movie's subtitle suggests, "American Revolutionary" does a remarkable job of tracing Boggs's evolutions in thought despite her discomfort, at times, with her own past ideas. In the end, it's a deeply humanizing (and inspiring) portrait, a testament to both the vitality of the subject and vigor of the filmmaker.

You could say "American Revolutionary" is based around conversations, not only between Boggs and a variety of people in the film (including actor Danny Glover and activist Shea Howell), but specifically a dialogue that Lee and Boggs began over 10 years ago. That both women share a common name is no coincidence; it helps explain how the two entered each other's orbits, back when Lee was putting together her first feature documentary in the early 2000s, "The Grace Lee Project."

Lee grew up in Columbia, MO, not only one of the few Asians in the city but also one of the only "Graces" she knew growing up. Filmmaking wasn't her originally ambition; journalism was. In her early 20s, she ended up as an English teacher in South Korea and wanted to use her journalism skills to help collect oral histories, eventually pairing with an anthropologist who was video-interviewing sex workers near American military bases. In that process, Lee came to the realization that, "I don't think I'm a good enough writer to express what I'm seeing, but a camera can capture this better."

From there, Lee came back to the U.S., essentially apprenticing under documentarians such as New York's Rea Tajiri ("Yuri Kochiyama: A Passion for Justice," "Lordville") and the Bay Area's late Loni Ding ("Ancestors in America") before ended up in L.A. to study film at UCLA. Back in Columbia, MO, "nobody had the name Grace, and I felt really unique," Lee says. "It wasn't until I actually got to UCLA where there were 12 Grace Lees in the directory that I thought, 'okay, I should probably do something about this.'" Thus was born "The Grace Lee Project."

As Lee found, there was a certain archetype that people assumed a "Grace Lee" fit: demure, polite, passive, what she describes as, "the quintessentially perfect Asian American woman or minority." Her documentary was designed to challenge that by searching out a diversity of Grace Lees, from all works of life. Boggs was one of many, and one that Lee already had an awareness of, thanks to a college professor who she recalls telling her, "you have the same name as this socialist philosopher."

Boggs invited Lee to come out to Detroit and thus began a long series of conversations that Lee documents in "American Revolutionary." It makes for some of the richest parts of the film, with Lee often breaking the fourth wall to use herself as a proxy for the viewer, asking some of the questions we might want to pose to Boggs, especially around how her earlier ideologies of militant revolution have shifted towards a more non-violent approach to organizing and activism. "To be in her presence when her mind is working," says Lee, "is really exciting, and that's the experience that we wanted to capture in the film."

Those conversations took place over a decade in which Lee's filmmaking career followed an unpredictable path. She was all set to film what she hoped to be her magnum opus as a feature director -- a dramatic rom-com set in South Korea, also starring Oh -- and then the funding fell apart. But then in stepped another Korean production company who was interested in a rough script that Lee and co-writer Rebecca Sonnenshine had been kicking around... about zombies. This was before the massive zombie-lust in American pop culture bubbled up and Lee' and Sonnenshine's idea was to film "American Zombie" (2007) as a mock-umentary in which an investigative team runs down rumors of a zombie community living in Los Angeles and "their struggle to gain acceptance in human society," Lee explains. Think "Duck Dynasty" meets "True Blood "meets "The Walking Dead" but before all of them.

Lee goes on to say, "being around a lot of identity politics, I think it was a great way to talk about that kind of stuff. There's all these kinds of 'types' that are in the film that are very familiar to me, like 'The Activist," and "The zombie that doesn't want to acknowledge that she's a zombie, and only dates humans," you know?" The film pokes gentle fun at all these templates, not the least of which is a particularly Southern Californian jumble of live-and-let-live attitudes undermined by the region's -- shall we say, superficialities.

If there's a common theme in Lee's varied films, it's that the documentary format underpins it, even in her feature work. Besides the mock-umentary style of "American Zombie," Lee's next film, "Janeane from Des Moines" (2012) also uses the presence of a documentary crew to help propel its plot, where Jeanane, a fictional, disillusioned "Tea Party Patrtiot," hits the campaign trail and begins to approach actual politicians during the 2012 presidential season. Janeane confronts these candidates with her political grievances and in the process, Lee managed to get people such as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and the eventually Republican nominee, Mitt Romney on screen, all responding to Jeanane's questions. The interviews may be a set-up but their responses are "genuine" (to the extent that any campaigning politician is ever truly candid). Lee admits that she could have done the entire film with just actors but the film is more potent in capturing these moments in the "real world". As she puts it, "there's something about the documentary form that allows that to happen. You're actually there with human beings who have the name Mitt Romney, and you're not controlling anything."

Eventually, all these roads lead back to Boggs and "American Revolutionary." She initially thought selling potential funding partners on the film would be a no-brainer, given Boggs's illustrious career and reputation, but as she found, people couldn't quite figure out what the film would "be about." Lee remembers people asking her, "what is she doing now? There's no conflict. She's a 90-something year old woman who just sits in her living room and talks to people and thinks. How do you tell that story?

Lee's solution was to foreground the conversations, the intellect, to make the movie about how Boggs herself has embodied a site of conflict over the years as her views on politics and activism have changed, including in seemingly contradictory ways. However, what Lee teases out the best is Boggs's belief in the power of transformation, not just in thinking but through action. The film focuses on Boggs's work with Detroit Summer, a youth-oriented leadership and organizing collective that Boggs, and her late husband James, started in 1992. Lee says that watching Boggs spend so much time working to literally and figuratively reshape the landscape in Detroit has had an important impact on herself: "I just felt like the way she talked about [her neighborhood], to know that she and James Boggs lived in that house, took care of the neighborhood...it just made me think "wow, I should do that in L.A. I should live that way in my neighborhood."

Lee and her family live in East Hollywood, close to City College, and she's been inspired to work with neighbors on a modest clean-up of a small triangle of land by the 101, picking up the trash that people leave there, planting low-water succulents. She tries to articulate what it means to the local residents on a project even this simple: "There's something about seeing people caring for something that's uncared for. They're just little small experiments, I guess." As both Grace Lees suggest though, even small gestures can lead to big changes.

Grace Lee Boggs | Courtesy of Acme PR
Grace Lee Boggs | Courtesy of Acme PR

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