GOOD DOCS sat down with director Grace Lee to discuss her documentary AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY and the unique, historical role Grace Lee Boggs played as a Chinese American in the African American movement.
As one of a few widely-recognized female directors, and Asian American women directors in particular, some could argue that the safer way to travel for you would have been to address issues and topics that are more mainstream. What about Grace Lee Boggs led you to invest your energy and respected position to the telling of her story?
I first met Grace when I was making my first feature documentary The Grace Lee Project that explored my incredibly common Asian American name. She immediately invited me to Detroit to find out more about her life there. I had never met anybody like Grace before – an Asian American woman who was a philosopher, a writer, an activist devoted to social justice and who broke the mold not just of what a “Grace Lee” could be, but what it meant to be human. At the time I met her, I was thirsty for the kinds of experiences and wisdom she could share and inspired by her ability to keep challenging herself and the status quo.
What aspects of her life do you believe gave her the strength to challenge cultural norms?
One of the things I found so interesting is that her family was completely accepting of her marrying an African American man, especially at that time, I feel like that was so unheard of in Asian American culture. For most of her life, Grace was a complete anomaly – a Chinese American at a time when there aren’t that many Asian Americans in the United States; she goes to college during the Depression, when most people are unable to go to college; she’s an avowed socialist at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism; she’s an Asian American in the Black movement. This position of being an outsider, someone who’s able to, like she says in the film, be “part of and apart from the community” gives her a unique opportunity and position to view the world. She didn’t grow up amongst activists. She chose to devote her life to that movement.
Throughout my Native American Studies courses, I’ve learned that cultural appropriation has been a problem with non-Natives doing activism around issues affecting Native American communities. Did you get the sense that Grace Lee Boggs faced any such reactions by African Americans throughout her activist career?
Most people, when they hear about Grace are intrigued by her as this Chinese American woman in a Black movement. But she would repeatedly point out that she didn’t think about being a Chinese American woman because there was no Chinese-American movement, and there was no women’s movement when she was coming of age as an activist and thinker. I didn’t include this story in the film, but she tells a story about being involved in a tenants rights movement on Chicago's south side. She was told to speak out in a public setting and recalls that Black people were intrigued by her because a) she wasn’t white and b) she admitted that she didn’t know what to say. I think her ability to listen and her ability to learn and grow and spend a lot of time being in communities without trying to take over them was important to her success as an organizer.
In the same vein, did you receive pushback from the African American community when you made the film?
No. At the core, this is an American story through the lens of a Chinese American woman who was part of the Black movement, among many other movements. I was a History major in college where I studied the civil rights movement and to learn years later that Grace Lee Boggs was active during that time was very compelling personally. We know very little about what’s happening at the grassroots when it comes to our history. I’ve always been interested in these questions of representation, whose story is told, because we seldom learn about the individuals who weren’t famous or in the spotlight.
Do you see any similarities in today’s political climate to the time that Grace Lee Boggs began organizing and activism?
Many similarities, which just shows how very little we learn or reflect on our own history. As Grace says in the film, history is the story of the past and present coming together. The lifelong questions that she grappled with – about what is revolution, what is an American revolution, what is a riot versus a rebellion. I mean, she wrote a whole book with James Boggs called Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, and she lived well into the twenty-first century. I was recently rewatching the film with an audience right after Ferguson, and the whole section about the Detroit Rebellion, and I was like, "Wow, this is so familiar!" And when the 25th anniversary of the LA civil unrest took place, I thought the same thing. Watching the film I found that to be so true. All of her quotes could be referring to today’s events, even though they’re out of context, but they just make sense.
Could I ask you how you got started in film?
I never studied film in college. I wanted to be a newspaper reporter, but right before my junior year, I had an internship at a newspaper and I thought, "I don’t know if I can do this!" I liked it, but the whole daily journalism grind with deadlines was too stressful. I wanted to go deeper and spend more time with a story or character and really understand it. So I changed my major to History, and then after college, my parents (who immigrated to the US from Korea in the 1960s decided to move back to Korea. So after I finished college, I went to Korea to learn Korean and get to know that culture and history. And when I was there, I ended up volunteering at this center for Korean women working around American military bases in bars and brothels and who were in relationships with American GIs. At the time I had no film experience, but I met another Korean American woman who did have a camera and sound equipment, and we decided to work on a short film together. I’d only previously done oral histories and interviews, but visual storytelling was really intriguing to me. I came back from Korea and began working on various productions as an assistant or researcher, while trying to learn by making my own film. I eventually went to graduate film school (where I focused on fiction – working with actors and writing scripts) because I wanted to have all the storytelling tools at my disposal.
So few Asian Americans in general, but especially Asian American women are represented in American curriculums across the board, even today. And I feel like that should lead educators realize that there’s obviously something missing. For something like AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY to be integrated into university and high school curriculums, what arguments do you think would be strong in encouraging educators to make space for such a film?
The 2016 election underscored to me how me the lack of diverse perspectives contributing to public dialogue is to our democracy’s detriment. I think you can apply that to history as well. If you only know our history from this one point of view, then you’re missing out on huge swaths of the population and you have a very narrow view. Grace Lee Boggs was an active participant in so many social movements that shaped this country, yet you don’t know of her like you know about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr, or Malcolm X, even though she was an active contemporary of all of them. Also, like Grace, it’s hard to pigeonhole this film as a historical film or a biographical film — it has elements of both, but it’s also very personal and it’s also a film about ideas. And it’s entertaining — she’s a very compelling character! Grace’s life intersects so many movements, generations, ideas, and people — it’s a great opportunity for anyone interested in experiencing history through one person, and a very compelling person at that.
What message or messages do you hope young adults/college students will gain from watching the film?
I think there’s something everyone in the film. There are people who are going to identify with her because she’s an Asian American woman, or because she’s an activist and philosopher and that’s such a unique perspective to see. But I think also the emotional power of ideas really resonate with audiences across the board. She is such an effective communicator and the ideas are so simple and force you to think about what they mean in your life.
So, as a filmmaker, you consider a concept or idea for a film. What sort of elements do you think makes a story an impactful one that needs to be told?
For me, personally, if it’s a story that I have a burning desire to tell, then I know for myself that it’s worth doing. I have to really love the people involved because it is a long-term relationship, this documentary filmmaking habit! The other elements to me that are important are the questions that the idea brings up for me. There were so many things I was curious about when it came to Grace, her work, her history and the movements she was involved in — I wanted to convey what I found with others. The act of sharing that with an audience and how I excited I get about doing that is key for me.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers – specifically female filmmakers or minority female filmmakers – about gaining experience before setting out to create meaningful work?
I would say find your collaborators. After doing this for so long, I have two questions for myself when I consider starting something new: Do I love this project, and do I love the people working on this project? That’s pretty much it. That drives everything else. So I would say to people starting out is to find the projects that you love because that’s what’s going to carry you through all the despair [laughs] and all the disappointment. And then also find the people that can help carry you through the project too, because we have to support each other. So it’s building the network, building networks amongst people, your collaborators. When you click with a person, you just keep it going. Your relationship evolves, your work together evolves, and it just gets better.
What projects are you currently working on?
I recently finished K-Town ’92, an interactive online doc about the LA Riots/rebellion/civil unrest as well as developing and researching a bigger project on Koreatown, Los Angeles. I’ve got some other projects (fiction and interactive) in the interactive stage as well.
Do you have anything you want people to know about you or the film, or filmmaking in general that I haven’t asked you?
The other thing that I’m passionate about is the Asian American Documentary Network, which started in Fall of 2016 and is about building, supporting and sustaining Asian American filmmakers and stories in documentary. We are a filmmaker-driven network aiming to strengthen our voice and advocate for Asian American stories in the non-fiction world especially.
One of the goals while making the film was: how do we convey how exciting it is to be in the presence of Grace Lee Boggs and her whirring mind? I was lucky to have had the privilege of being able to have face-to-face interactions with her for so many years and I wanted to pass along that feeling of inspiration to others who would appreciate and get inspired from it.