To explore the life of Grace Lee Boggs is to explore a multitude of topics about America in the 20th century. That’s what happens when you live for 98 years (and counting!) and don’t let up on your social activism for one second. Learn about Boggs and you learn about the experiences of Asian Americans, African Americans, feminists, Marxists, writers, unions and the city of Detroit. Among other things. She not only utterly deserves to be the subject of a documentary, but she could have been one several times over through the years, a one-woman Up series.
As the title of American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs suggests, biographing Boggs means chronicling a continuing evolution of character. She was the daughter of a restaurant owner but would grow up to study at Barnard and Bryn Mawr. She became involved in leftist causes after a combination of institutional sexism and racism kept her out of the academic positions she deserved. For decades, she was a dedicated Marxist and rabble-rouser, working alongside her husband James Boggs. Over time, though, her perspective shifted to a more complicated view of what revolution entails. Her changing reads not as a radical softening over time due to weariness but as an honest result of constant reevaluation and self-reflection.
That’s the central message of American Revolutionary, which is as much about what it means to be an open-minded, well-rounded human being as it is about political activism. The movie would fit in well with any educational curriculum, or on a PBS series. It’s informative while still being engaging. Boggs herself impresses as a protagonist, still a firecracker at almost a century old. For female role models, current pop culture puts out paper-thin characters who are meant to be admirable just because they know kung fu. This is a breath of fresh air.
The problem with American Revolutionary is its disinterest in bringing much new to the table. Nothing distinguishes the film from any of the hundreds of other biographical docs made about historical movers and shakers. I get the feeling that one would do much better for themself by reading one of Boggs’s philosophical or political books than by watching the movie about her. The same could be said for even the best of docs about similar subjects, but the key is not the information a film has to impart, but what it can contribute that other forms of media can’t. If it does not do this, then what is the point of sitting down to watch when one could learn the same facts by scanning a Wikipedia page?
American Revolutionary is a disappointingly ordinary movie about an extraordinary person. Still, it’s good that something has come along that will draw some attention back to Boggs, and to the causes for which she still agitates. A lifelong resident of Detroit, the city’s hollow status seems to act as a metaphor for her standing alone at the end of her days. But there’s still a spark left in Detroit, and there’s still a spark in Boggs. I just wish her movie had let me better feel the way she does.