AFI Docs Review: “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs”

Filmmaker Grace Lee delves into the extraordinary life of her namesake, a 97-year-old activist and philosopher.

By: Alison Kitchens

At 97, Grace Lee Boggs doesn’t look much like a social activist or someone with an extensive FBI file, but she’s exactly that. Filmmaker Grace Lee’s (no relation, although she came across Boggs while researching a film about women with the same name as her) American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs chronicles Boggs’s life from her childhood as a Chinese immigrant in Rhode Island through her adult life as a Marxist theoretician, black power activist, and philosopher. Boggs’s wit and charisma carry the film—it’s hard not to be charmed by her willingness to do what she believes is right and the matter-of-fact way she recalls accomplishments from the past. “You don’t choose the times you live in,” she says. “But you do choose who you ought to be, and you do choose how you ought to think.”

During her time in college at Barnard, Boggs came across Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s teachings, and, thus, a philosopher was born. After more schooling, Boggs moved to Chicago, where she came in contact with the civil rights movement for the first time. “I was aware that people were suffering but it was more a statistical thing, and here in Chicago I came in contact with it as a human thing,” she said.

After taking part in the 1941 March on Washington, Boggs eventually moved to Detroit to be closer to the African-American working population—beginning her love affair with the city. There, she met her future husband, James Boggs. Through clips from television appearances and speaking engagements, we get a clear picture of the couple as public speakers, passionately discussing the civil rights movement. In interviews, Boggs recalls her viewpoints of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X’s teachings with clarity (she preferred the latter’s point of view).

At times, American Revolutionary seems more like a history lesson than a profile of Boggs—a reminder of how much she has seen in her lifetime. However, interludes to explain Hegel’s and Marx’s teachings are helpful in understanding Boggs’s conversations. The film slows down after focusing on the 1967 Detroit riot and shifts to Boggs’s involvement in rebuilding Detroit and her later life without her husband by her side. Even into her late 80s and 90s, Boggs is still living the kind of life that makes you wonder what you’ve been doing with your own. It’s easy to see why Lee chose to center the film around her.

Boggs’s close relationship with Lee is apparent early on (when Lee gives Boggs a haircut in the latter’s kitchen), and their friendship develops over the course of the film. However, during their conversations, Boggs is quick to dodge personal questions or to put a positive spin on a negative situation, and, by the end of the film, Lee and the film’s viewers are left wanting more. Lee never really gets the personal responses she’s looking for, but she does get Boggs thinking, which, coming from a philosopher, might be the best she’s going to get.

Playing June 21, 5:15 PM at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, and June 23, 2:15 PM at the National Museum of American History.