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You Say You Want a Revolutionary? ‘POV’ Tells the Story of Grace Lee Boggs
June 30, 2014  | By Eric Gould

As the Fourth of July approaches, a new documentary looks at the revolutionary activism – then and now – of 99-year-old Grace Lee Boggs – writer, philosopher and voice for change.

Boggs, once an organizer for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., is the subject Monday night (tonight) of director Grace Lee’s documentary airing on PBS’s POV series (10 p.m.ET,  check local listings). Titled American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, it tells the story of Boggs’ journey from her comfortable life as a daughter of a successful Asian-American restauranteur to doctor of philosophy, activist and civil rights author.

Director Lee is no relation to subject Lee. The young filmmaker befriended the well-known intellectual during the filming of her earlier documentary The Grace Lee Project, in which she explored the commonly shared name of many Asian-American women and the stereotypes associated with it.

In American Revolutionary, the story is all about the elder Lee. A gifted intellectual and young devotee of Hegel's philosophical writings, she received her doctorate in 1940, then worked for West Indian Marxist author C.L.R. James. After World War II, she settled in Detroit, marrying James Boggs, an African-American activist and author. It's in this context you realize that Lee has witnessed a century of change.

Together, the Boggs (right) became some of the main voices of the Black Power movement, with Grace Lee Boggs being one of its only non-African-American faces. Her civil rights work during the turbulent 1960s landed her name on a number of FBI surveillance lists. She says, “You don’t choose the times you live in. But you do choose who you ought to be, and you do choose how you want to think."

The better part of American Revolutionary is the focus of Boggs’ work during that time in her adopted city of Detroit. There are montages and dissolves of old news footage of Detroit in its post-war heyday of American capitalism, into its eventual descent into rebellion in 1969, and after, into a post-industrial wasteland with a shrinking economy.

It was after the Detroit riots in 1967 that Boggs began to reexamine her ideas of revolution, and whether her prior, more militant ideas were the most effective. She says, “I think we realized that a rebellion was an outburst of anger, but it wasn’t a revolution. Revolution is an evolution towards something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being.” In the ensuing decades, she began to write that revolution was “was about not only transforming the system, but an example of how we ourselves change in the process of changing the system."

That is the reward and focus of the second half of the documentary, and the spirit of Boggs’ work with youth organizations since James Boggs' death in 1993. She has remained an active lecturer and mentor approaching her 100th year. Would that any of us would posess the same vitality and drive, even at a couple of decades younger.

Her emphasis now is understanding the real nature of change, having seen Detroit morph into something completely different from what it was when she arrived:

“It’s so obvious we’re coming to a huge turning point. You begin with a protest, but you have to move on from there. Just being angry, just being resentful, just being outraged, does not constitute revolution. So many of our institutions need reinventing.

"The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is.”

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