There aren’t any dull moments in the documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.
The philosopher, writer and activist Grace Lee Boggs will turn 100 in June, but in this film, which was released in 2013, she still has all her wits about her. Even more impressive, she still talks about revolution and social change, and does so in Detroit, her home since the 1950s. She has so many stories to share and hasn’t given up hope that people can work together to make a better world. She warns against placing too many expectations on political messiahs, though. She suggests that “We are the leaders we are looking for.”
Grace Lee’s father owned a big Chinese restaurant on Broadway in New York. She tells us that this gave her a comfortable home life, but she also reveals that her mother had never gone to school, and that she could not read or write. Grace Lee herself earned a BA from Barnard College and a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr. Despite those qualifications, cracking the job market was not easy. In those days, she says, even department stores would not hire “Orientals.” She got a job at a library at the University of Chicago that paid $10 per week. She lived in a rat-infested basement and came into contact with the black community when she joined the struggle for better housing.
By the 1940s the Depression was over for whites but not for blacks. The U.S. was gearing up for war but the owners of defense plants would not hire black Americans. Activists began planning a July 1 protest march on Washington. An estimated 100,000 people would take part. To keep the march from happening, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in the defense industry. Grace Lee was very impressed by this example of people power in action. As she later told Bill Moyers: “When I saw what a movement could do I said, ‘Boy that’s what I wanna do with my life.’ ”
She went to Detroit because that’s “where the workers were.” She married James (Jimmy) Boggs, who was an auto worker, writer and activist. Until his death in 1993, they worked together in the labour movement and the Black Power movement; they knew Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Their home was a meeting place for thinkers and organizers.
The film includes the derelict buildings we’re used to seeing in reports on present-day Detroit, along with scenes from the past – the prosperous past and the violent one, too. Some parts of the city look a bit like Montreal, with the same kind of buses we used to have; there’s a dark stone building with arches, kind of like The Bay department store on Ste. Catherine St. And then there’s the snow, Detroit seems to get quite a lot of snow, too.
There’s evidence that Detroit’s downhill spiral began much longer ago than one might think. Back in the 1930s as many as 95,000 people were working in one of the plants belonging to the Ford Motor Co., but by the late 1950s automation was already leading to layoffs.
The soundtrack includes “Run, Charlie, Run” a tune by The Temptations about white flight from the city to the ‘burbs. I count myself as a Motown fan, but I can’t remember ever hearing that one before. I wonder if it’s ever played on any “oldies” radio stations?
The film is directed by Grace Lee, who is no relation to Grace Lee Boggs. They have stayed in touch since 2000 when the filmmaker began work on The Grace Lee Project, a film about several Asian-American women who share the same name. (The Village Voice review of The Grace Lee Project says that Grace Lee Boggs is called Grace X by her neighbours.)
To learn more about Grace Lee Boggs, check out this book list; it includes books that she wrote and books that influenced her.
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs will be presented by Cinema Politica on Monday, April 13, 2015 at 7 p.m. in H 110 of the Hall Building at Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
Admission is by voluntary donation.
For more information, visit the Facebook page about the screening.
Cinema Political will show films at various outdoor locations during the summer, but American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is the last presentation at the Hall Building for the 2014-2015 academic year.