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The life of Chinese-American civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs
Video Librarian
Politics • Philosophy • Civil Rights • Asian American
Race and Ethnicity • African American • Women's Studies
2013. Director Grace Lee. Producers Grace Lee, Caroline Libresco & Austin Wilkin.
82 Minutes. Transcript available.


What does it mean to be an AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY today? Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American woman in Detroit, who died in October 2015 at 100 years old, has a surprising vision of revolution. A writer, activist, and philosopher rooted for more than 70 years in the African American movement, she devoted her life to an evolving revolution that encompassed the contradictions of America’s past and its potentially radical future. This Peabody Award-winning documentary plunges us into Boggs’ lifelong practice of igniting community dialogue and action, work that traverses 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.


Angela Davis, Bill Moyers, Bill Ayers, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Danny Glover, Boggs’s husband James Boggs and a host of Detroit comrades across three generations help shape this uniquely American story. As she wrestles with a Detroit in ongoing transition, contradictions of violence and non-violence, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the 1967 rebellions, and non-linear notions of time and history, Boggs emerges with an approach that is radical in its simplicity and clarity: revolution is not an act of aggression or merely a protest. Revolution, Boggs says, is about something deeper within the human experience — the ability to transform oneself in order to transform the world. More than ten years in the making, this inter-disciplinary film has a wide appeal to college students.

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Reviews & Quotes

★★★ 1/2 Highly Recommended (Video Librarian)

"A powerful biography of a dedicated, thoughtful, engaged woman worth heeding. For all libraries."

UC Santa Cruz

Bettina Aptheker, Professor of Feminist Studies Critical Race and Ethnic Studies

"This documentary on the life and times of Grace Lee Boggs, starring her charismatic and energetic self, provides both inspiration and wisdom. It provides an extraordinary historical record of the struggle for black liberation and U.S. social justice movements through her experiences over nearly a century. Most importantly, at 98, Grace Lee Boggs shows us how she herself  continues to transform herself and her ideas  as she  engages in the politics of social transformation. 'Once ideas are fixed,' she tells us, 'they are already dead.' She is a model of flexible mind and unflinching personal and political courage."

Journal of Asian American Studies

Azalia Muchransyah, University at Buffalo, SUNY

"This film not only entertains but is an important historical resource for Asian and African American activism as personified by Grace Lee Boggs. Through her beautiful and sometimes funny way of portraying Boggs and her great contributions to the Black Power movement and the country in general, Lee successfully reveals Boggs’s idea of revolution as a re-evolution: how we have to change ourselves to change the world."

University of Notre Dame

David F. Ruccio, Proffessor of Economics, Former editor of Rethinking Marxism

"American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is a documentary about the long and rich life of an extraordinary American revolutionary. And for that we should be thankful, since we simply don’t have many cinematic examples of ordinary flesh-and-blood people who have struggled to locate themselves within, radically challenge, and creatively make history. All the while maintaining her humanity. But this film is much, much more. It is both a document of people’s struggles over the course of the twentieth century—especially civil rights and black power, during the rise and fall of Detroit—and an invitation to engage in new conversations about the kind of American revolution needed today. Because, as Grace Lee Boggs says, 'It’s obvious by looking at it, what was doesn’t work.'


American Revolutionary is also quite wonderful filmmaking—beautifully filmed and edited, with a lively, engaging score. And the filmmaker herself, Grace Lee, makes the life of a venerable and tough woman relevant to younger generations of potential activists and revolutionaries: first, by showing how Boggs found ways of rethinking and reinventing what her life, including her involvement in the people’s transformation of Detroit, might look like; and, second, by documenting Lee’s own struggles to make sense of and to connect with Boggs 'the icon' and her confident and uncompromising spirit of revolutionary thinking and engagement.


Lee’s film represents an alternative, then, to the main kinds of messages being delivered to young people today, of either insipid inspirational self-improvement or the cynical 'to the victors belong the spoils.' Instead, she provides us the opportunity to imagine a different kind of life and world—one in which ideas matter, giants do in fact fall, and people (including Boggs herself) evolve."

Robin D. G. Kelley, Author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

"Brings us face to face with-one of the greatest radical thinkers of the last half-century, and Detroit—one of the most consequential cities in the world whose purported death is actually a rebirth. Seeing how a brilliant daughter of Chinese immigrants found her way into the Black freedom struggle, the world of revolutionary socialism, and helped found a movement for a New American Revolution, is astonishing. And discovering the vulnerable, funny, buoyant, sometimes cranky woman behind the Revolution, is nothing short of mesmerizing."

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Yuichiro Onishi, Associate Professor, Director of Undergraduate Studies, African American & African Studies

"To render Grace Lee Boggs's life in the struggle is to capture her political and philosophical transformation in all its fullness and complexity against the backdrop of the movement of post-1945 U.S. history. The filmmaker Grace Lee succeeds in doing so, for she exhibits utmost sensitivity toward how a paradigm shift happens dialectically, both within individuals and the world over. Such is the hallmark of American Revolutionary. The film not only presents a blueprint to keep the horizon of history open, but also reminds us all that the future in our challenging times is not given to us but always made at the grassroots through the hard and animating work of movement building.”