Monday, June 30, 2014

For Tonight and Forever: American [R]evolutionary Grace Lee Boggs

Last night, I got the opportunity to preview a film that debuts on PBS stations nationally tonight. The title is "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs" and it's only an hour and twenty minutes long, but it took me over two hours to watch it because I kept pausing the film to make sure I didn't miss a single minute while I was writing stuff down. Six pages of stuff. Not so much "notes" for this post as quotes I want to remember. "American Revolutionary" is more than a film; it's an experience. And Grace Lee Boggs is more than a 99-year-old revolutionary. She's a force of nature.

The filmmaker -- also named Grace Lee (no relation) -- spent more than a decade following her subject around, beginning when Boggs was 85-years-old and still doing water aerobics when she wasn't leading marches to chase the crack dealers out of her neighborhood. It's as though Lee didn't want to leave anything out and since Boggs kept living on and on, the movie cameras kept rolling and so did the project. Lee's obvious affection for Boggs never becomes sappy, however, because the filmmaker keeps learning (and keeps us learning) about Boggs, about revolution, about the history of the Black Power movement of which Boggs and her late husband, Jimmy, were such an important part, and -- wait for it -- even about Detroit as a microcosm of capitalism shattering on the rocks of its own demise. All without ever becoming burdensome.

Grace, born in 1915 to a Chinese couple who owned a restaurant on Broadway, earned her PhD in philosophy at Bryn Mawr and worked for radical social change for thirteen years before she met Jimmy Boggs, a Black auto worker in Detroit who was originally from Alabama and equally committed to revolution. He proposed on their first date and she accepted immediately, typical of their style which put politics ahead of everything else for forty years until his death in 1993, after which Grace continued their revolutionary evolution as if he had never left her side.

Grace Lee Boggs was first radicalized theoretically when she studied Hegel, Engels, and Marx in college, but when Franklin Roosevelt opened the defense plants to Black workers in 1941 to avoid having to deal with tens of thousands of Black men and women marching in the streets to demand jobs, she embraced a whole new vision of what is possible and a mission she has never abandoned.

The film, while focusing on Grace, could not have presented her either factually or well without including Jimmy's presence and personna, as well. Further, and more importantly at this crucial juncture in its history, the story of Detroit -- its rise and fall and Grace's refusal to quit working to help it rise again -- is more than worth the watch all by itself.

Whatever you intended to do tonight, I urge you strongly to gather your family and friends and view "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs" on your local PBS station. If for some reason, you can't do that or if you -- like me -- don't have television service, then visit tomorrow and watch it online during the month of July. I promise you that you will not be sorry.

If you are longing for a new, more human-oriented world; if you have burned out and can't imagine how to find your way back to hope; if you have given up believing in the power of love, if you have come to think there is no way to re-claim our cities or ourselves, watch this film. In watching Grace Lee Boggs' seventy year evolution unfold in front of you, your mind and soul will be fed by her indefatigable energy, her love, her life, her words:

"You don't choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be and what you want to think...

"A rebellion is an outburst of anger, but it's not a revolution. A revolution is an evolution toward something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being. It is not enough to say, 'This is what I think or this is what I feel' and leave it at that. You must consider the implications of your actions. The radical movement has overemphasized the role of activism and underemphasized the role of reflection. You have to change yourself to change the world...

"One of the difficulties of coming out of a period of great oppression and great bitterness is that you get a concept of a Messiah. You expect too much of your leaders. We have to get to the point of knowing that we are the leaders we have been looking for...

"It's so obvious we're coming to a huge turning point. You begin with a protest, but you have to move from there. Just being angry, just being resentful, just being outraged does not constitute revolution. So many institutions in our society need reinventing. The time has come for a new dream. That's what being a revolutionary is."

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