PBS Profile: Detroit 'Revolutionary' Grace Lee Boggs, 98

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Grace Lee Boggs of Detroit poses with James Boggs, her husband of 40 years. He died in 1993 at age 74. 

America is about to meet Grace Lee Boggs, a 98-year old Detroit activist and author who's the subject of a 90-minute documentary airing Monday night on PBS.

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Grace Lee Boggs "cut an extraordinary path through decades of struggle." says a P{BS summary of the film.

"American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs," part of the "P.O.V." (point of view) series, profiles a woman who is "rooted in 75 years of the labor, civil rights and black power movements [and] continually challenges a new generation to throw off old assumptions, think creatively and redefine revolution for our times," as the network puts it.. (See trailer below.)

The PBS summary adds:

In some ways, the radicalization of Grace Lee Boggs typifies an experience many people shared during America’s turbulent 20th century. Yet she cut an extraordinary path through decades of struggle. As Angela Davis, an icon of the 1960s black power movement, puts it, "Grace has made more contributions to the black struggle than most black people have."

Actor Danny Glover and numerous Detroit comrades, plus archival footage featuring Bill Moyers, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Boggs’ late husband and fellow radical, James Boggs, all testify to Boggs’ highly unusual position.

James Boggs died in 1993 at age 74. The James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a Detroit charter academy on East Kirby Street, is named for them.

The documentary, showing at 10 p.m. Monday on WTVS, is by director Grace Lee -- a Korean-American living in Los Angeles who isn't related to her subject.


Grace Lee Boggs and director Grace Lee.

The filmmaker discusses her project at PBS' site. Excerpts are here and in a video below:

Unique city: "Going to Detroit was really transformative because Detroit is unlike any other city I'd ever been in in my life."

Personal connection: "From the moment I met Grace Lee Boggs in 2000, I knew I would have to make a longer film just about her. Over the years, I would return to Detroit, hang out and watch her hold everyone from journalists to renowned activists to high school students in her thrall. I recognized myself in all of them — eager to connect with someone who seemed to embody history itself. . . . What I've learned from having these conversations with Grace Lee Boggs is you never know where a conversation is going to take you."

She "chastises me" on race: "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 . . . 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.' . . .  Here's somebody who was born in 1915, before women in America had the right to vote, two years before the Bolshevik revolution."

Activists in love: "One of the things she said to me [after a screening] 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."

Film's theme: "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 is a conversation about many different things."

"Might change the world:" "This is not an issue film, nor is it about a celebrity or an urgent injustice that rallies you to take action. It’s about an elderly woman who spends most of her days sitting in her living room thinking and hatching ideas about the next American revolution. But if you catch wind of some of those ideas, they just might change the world."

Lessons for young viewers: "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."

Boggs' reaction to film: "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."

-- Alan Stamm

Read more:  PBS
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