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Documentary film examines the evolution of political activist Grace Lee Boggs

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Filmmaker Grace Lee's documentary film "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs" will screen at Barnard College during the Athena Film Festival on February 7 at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival on February 8.

Boggs is a 98-year-old Chinese American woman in Detroit whose vision of revolution will surprise audiences. A writer, activist, and philosopher rooted for more than 70 years in the African American movement, she has devoted her life to an evolving revolution that encompasses the contradictions of America’s past and its potentially radical future.

The film plunges viewers into Boggs’s lifetime of vital thinking and action, traversing the major U.S. social movements of the last century; from labor to civil rights, to Black Power, feminism, the Asian American and environmental justice movements and beyond.

Director Grace Lee recently answered a few questions about the film, which will air on the PBS documentary series POV later this year.

Tell us how you first met Grace Lee Boggs while making your film "The Grace Lee Project."

I first got the idea to make American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs in 2000 while filming The Grace Lee Project, a personal documentary about the hundreds of Asian American women named Grace Lee. I had met Grace Lee Boggs at UCLA, where I was still in film school, and she invited me to come visit her in Detroit. Intrigued, I borrowed a camera and what was supposed to be a couple hours of filming, turned into a five-day trip and eventually a 12-year labor of love. Back then, my film school crew Jerry Henry (DP) and Caroline Libresco (Producer) and I spent a week in the “D”, trailing Grace from political meetings to potlucks to the urban gardens run by the youth organization she had helped found. We hung out in her living room –where generations of Detroit activists – from the Black Panthers to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, CLR James, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and countless others had once gathered. I could barely keep up with the then 86-year-old Grace -- wondering where this badass Chinese grandma with an 800-page FBI file had been all my life. Over the years, I would return to Detroit and watch her hold everyone from journalists to celebrities 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 inspired you to make a film focused on her life's work as an activist?

As years passed, I finished The Grace Lee Project (2005), made a couple of short films and even completed a feature film while still nursing the idea of making a longer film about Grace in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until I gave birth to my son in 2007, that I realized I was ready to tackle another documentary, and that I wanted him – and audiences everywhere – to experience this incredible woman’s story. I called Grace and told her I was finally ready for her close up. Her response was classic Grace: ”You better hurry up before I kick the bucket!” Jerry, Caroline and I immediately began making plans to shoot the film we had only imagined a decade earlier.

What meaning does the film hold for you?

American Revolutionary has been the most challenging film I’ve made in my short career –but also the most rewarding. We were constantly confronted with the big questions. How do you make a film about ideas? Or a 90-something woman who spends most of her time thinking and talking to people in her living room? How do you cover 100 years of American social movements in an engaging way? And how do you convince funders that a film that includes biography, history and personal elements can be entertaining, emotional, and not simply a hagiography? I am indebted to my collaborators -- producers Caroline Libresco and Austin Wilkin and Eurie Chung, editor Kim Roberts, DPs Jerry Henry and Quyen Tran – who made the multi-year journey with me, working whenever funds became available (and even when they weren’t) to get this film to completion.

How has the film impacted your career?

I've evolved as a filmmaker primarily because I've had to change and grow as the circumstances by which I could make it changed over the years. I do know that the exposure I've gotten from the film -- even so far -- has helped me get work.

What are your thoughts on filmmaking as a medium for social justice and societal change?

I think it's a great way to bring to light stories that might never get exposure. Stories are so powerful and a way for human beings to connect with people they might never have an opportunity to meet or experience what life is like in their shoes. In my more recent films -- and American Revolutionary in particular - I've looked at the films as a way to spark a conversation. Making a film isn't going to change the world itself, but it can definitely be used as a tool by community organizers or individuals to help inspire that change.

What's next for you as a filmmaker? Do you have any new projects in the works?

I’m currently producing and directing a one-hour program for PBS called Off the Menu: Asian America. Using food as a lens, the show explores unexpected stories and portraits of Asian Americans from New York City to Milwaukee Houston, and Hawaii. I was also just hired to direct an episode of the PBS series MAKERS about Women in Politics that explores how far women have come since the women’s movement and how far we still have to go. Both will air on PBS next year -- along with American Revolutionary (on the doc series POV)

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