[22 July 2014]
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs starts off with a striking image. An aged, slightly hunched Grace Lee Boggs wheels her walker down the street of a devastated landscape where the remains of the old Detroit Packard automobile plant crumble into memories. She appears like the lone survivor of a bombed city, its skeletal remains lumbering behind her slight, frail body.
This plant once employed a total of 45,000 workers. River Rouge, one of the largest auto plants in Detroit, once employed over 90,000 workers. Now, only 100,000 workers comprise the entire United Auto Workers within the continental United States. Grace reflects as she faces the plant’s entrance, “This is a symbol of how giants fall.”
Boggs is the perfect subject for a documentary, since her life weaves throughout the rich tapestry of many of the pivotal moments of African-American rebellion and worker unrest that mark the mid-to-late 20th century. She participated in the 1941 March on Washington to demand the elimination of discrimination in the defense industry. Her life intersects with leading Marxist thinkers like C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya in the ‘50s. She breaks from orthodox Marxism in the ‘60s with her then husband and revolutionary thinker James Boggs to become one of the central figures in the Black Power movement in Detroit. She leads the fight against opening casinos in Detroit throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Presently, she continues to be involved with the establishment of community gardens throughout the city to help build a new leadership and a sense of solidarity among Detroit’s many inhabitants.
Director Grace Lee’s (no relation to Boggs) discovery of Boggs has interesting origins. She met Boggs while filming The Grace Lee Project, where she interviewed other Asian-American women with the same name to counter the one-dimensional stereotypes of Asian-Americans by revealing the diversity and depth of her interview subjects. Boggs’ deep immersion into Left traditions that long preceded the identity politics that director Lee held clearly fascinated her, as Boggs didn’t even self-identify as Chinese-American until late in life, during her 70s.
Yet Lee’s liberal humanist outlook severely constrains her understanding of Boggs’ life and politics that often exceeds such a narrow, identity-based political outlook. This myopia, however, is ideal for PBS, which would much rather neuter the politics of Boggs’ life into a personalized story than understand the complex relations between African-Americans, Marxism, labor struggles, and feminism, which might unsettle PBS’s corporate underwriters’ assumptions and good faith. As James Ledbetter chronicles in his excellent book, Made Possible By: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States: “Public broadcasting contributions can thus be seen as part of a broader corporate communications strategy, through which American-based multinationals help shift public debate away from their own misfeasance” (157-58).
When a documentary indeed does investigate such corporate corruption, it gets denied broadcast by PBS, as has recently happened to the documentary Citizen Koch (2013), which offended PBS corporate underwriter David Koch by documenting the deeply anti-democratic practices of the Koch brothers. (For more information see Jane Mayer’s excellent New Yorker article, “A Word from our Sponsor”.)
As a result, Lee needs to tread carefully in not delving into the politics of her subject too in-depth. She makes her narrow outlook abundantly clear in her press release for the video: “This is not an issue film, nor is it about a celebrity or an urgent injustice that rallies you to take action. It’s about an elderly woman who spends most of her days sitting in her living room thinking and hatching ideas about the next American revolution. But if you catch wind of some of those ideas, they just might change the world.”
Such a statement is an affront to Boggs’ entire life, since she decidedly avoided armchair intellectual debates in favor of being in the streets, attending meetings, and intersecting with various social movements where her ideas could flourish and develop with those of others. Although one might rightfully claim that Lee’s statement simply serves the purpose of easing PBS’s concerns in order to receive funding and distribution for her documentary, it also exposes a severely myopic outlook that plagues her film.
For example, Boggs recalls her experience during the 1941 March on Washington where African-Americans threatened to march if the defense industry didn’t offer them jobs. The threat led to F.D.R. creating executive order 8802 that banned racial discrimination in the defense industry. Yet unmentioned in the documentary is the organizer’s leader: A. Philip Randolph, a socialist African-American who had earlier ran a black socialist paper with Chandler Owen called The Messenger. Later, Randolph would intersect with Martin Luther King, Jr. to pass along the march on Washington idea, which would come to fruition in 1963.
This white-washing of socialist and communist influences among African-Americans plagues most popular histories of the United States, and American Revolutionary is no different. In her autobiography, Boggs writes, “I was amazed at how clear the average black was about the positive contributions that the Communists had made to the struggle for justice for working and black people and how out of place the anti-Stalinism of Trotskyists would have been in a gathering of community people” (Living for Change, 95-96). Yet American Revolutionary fails to even glimpse the importance of socialism and communism in African-Americans’ lives.
Detroit of the ‘40s and ‘50s, it should be recalled, served as a hotbed of communist and socialist activity within the unions. United Auto Workers Local 600 at the River Rouge plant had many communists in its leadership positions and, not surprisingly, often held the most advanced outlook in terms of race relations. It not only adamantly argued for an integrated union, but some of its members joined the National Negro Labor Council to combat African-American discrimination in housing and hiring practices. Lee and James Boggs interacted with many of these people, using their living room as a central location for political discussions. Such interactions led them to a more nuanced understanding of US communism and socialism that the film consistently fails to acknowledge.
A cartoon segment of “Marxism in 30 seconds” provides the only moment where the film superficially engages with Marxism. After watching an image of Marx pulling a book of Hegel from his jacket, scenes from Sergei Eisenstein’s October follow with the toppling of the statue of the Czar and the storming of the Winter Palace. Over this imagery, Boggs in a sound bite states: “Part of Marx’s theory was that if you could just get the masses angry enough they would just sweep away the existing society and emerge a new society.” Yet this description could equally define Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchism or many kinds of revolutionary unrest.
Interestingly enough, Marxism’s defining characterstic— its interrogation and indictment of capitalism— remains missing throughout the entire documentary. This does a huge disservice to Boggs, C.L.R. James, and most especially Raya Dunayevskaya, who translated Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 into English among themselves in 1947, a full 14 years before they were made available in English to the general public. This allowed them to stress the humanist aspects of Marx that were minimized in his later works like Capital.
As Boggs writes in her autobiography, “Marx’s early essays were important because they reinforced..[our] view that the essence of socialist revolution is the expansion of the natural and acquired powers of human beings, not the nationalization of property” (102). Boggs and her group stressed the early Marx’s emphasis on people’s alienation and need for self-transformation over the more deterministic notions of revolution and clinical analyses of capitalism that vulgar Marxists proposed. Although we hear Boggs mention “dialectical humanism” within the film, American Revolutionary makes no efforts to connect the terminology with Boggs’ and others’ discovery of early Marx’s writings that contrasts against the more “scientific” dialectical materialism of his later work.
One can understand Boggs’ desire to participate in a documentary that would popularize her ideas. The Boggs Center, which was founded in 1995 by friends and associates of James and Lee, continues her efforts at outreach. In June 2014, for example, I took a bus tour of Detroit provided by the Boggs Center with tour guide Shea Howell, an intimate of Lee and James who also stars in American Revolutionary. As one boarded the bus, you were handed a 53 page pamphlet of writings by James Boggs, Howell, Grace Lee Boggs, and others sympathetic to the resistance movements within Detroit.
We started the tour at the ruins of the Packard Plant to get a sense of historical perspective—the city’s slide from industrial powerhouse and vanguard of workers’ rights to post-industrial nightmare as democratic law was ruled inefficient by Governor Rick Synder, who plunged the city into a state of emergency and anointed Kevin Orr as “emergency manager” whereby union contracts, the city council, and any other oversight committees or citizen councils were declared null and void. As I write this, Detroit shuts off people’s water who are delinquent a mere $100, while commercial and industrial facilities like Joe Louis Arena that have debts totaling more than $30 million for water usage have their services unimpeded. The United Nations has declared such practices a human rights violation.
As we travelled across the city, Howell deftly related its tense history between capitalism and labor, revealing such insights that deindustrialization actually began during the ‘50s in Detroit, not the ‘70s as is commonly believed. Automation, cybernation, and industrial flight had already become a concern for workers by the early ‘60s, as James Boggs’ classic text, The American Revolution reveals. As Thomas Sugrue notes, “Between 1947 and 1960, the city lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis 126).
Howell’s knowledge was encyclopedic, and she expertly navigated between a specific location and the larger issues that surrounded it, such as when speaking about the Packard Plant and explaining manufacturing’s desire to locate elsewhere not because it became unaffordable to produce in Detroit, but because workers’ power had grown too strong and challenged manufacturing’s inhumane system. We ended the tour at Feedom Freedom Urban Gardens, where locals have taken over adjacent lots to produce fresh food and create a sense of community control and involvement in the midst of manmade catastrophe.
Those on the tour, including myself, remained rapt with Howell’s delivery and expertise. Never had entertainment and knowledge been so ceaselessly intertwined. One imagines that this in part motivated Boggs’ participation in American Revolutionary. But instead of nuance and depth we all too often receive rather innocuous sound bites and cliché history.
Grace Lee Boggs schools Danny Glover
This is not to say that the documentary completely lacks subtlety. Nuance creeps through in unexpected ways. For example, we watch Boggs’ gradual movement from supporter of violence to that of nonviolence. While watching footage of the Detroit rebellion with buildings on fire and the streets chaotic with bodies, we hear a 1968 recording of her saying, “Violence is often very therapeutic for revolutionary forces. Sometimes it can help to escalate the mobilization of revolutionary forces.” Yet Lee cannot get Boggs on camera to admit that she supported violence in her earlier days.
Later, we see Boggs speaking before a group of students supporting nonviolence. She states that it “represents the capacity for human beings to grow.” But when the audience erupts in applause, Boggs cautions, “All of you who are clapping I suggest that you do some more thinking.” Such a moment reveals Boggs’ awareness of the trendiness of nonviolence and the ease in which one can support it. Violence is not quite so easily dismissible as some in her audience might want to believe. And her refusal to speak about her earlier espousal of violence might have less to do with evading the question and more to do with forcing viewers’ reflection upon its rationale rather than having her offer some type of easy summary.
Similarly, Lee, the director, questions Boggs more aggressively as their relationship deepens. Near the film’s end, she asks Boggs if she ever doubted herself or the movement. Boggs deftly evades the question until Lee finally blurts out, “I can’t relate to someone who doesn’t doubt themselves sometimes. Your whole thing about self-transformation should require an internal struggle.” This causes Boggs to take pause and finally admit, “That’s a criticism I should be making of myself… This encounter will be with me for quite a while.” Boggs’ ability to recognize the validity of such a criticism shows us someone whose mind still remains agile and relatively open even as she reaches her mid-90s.
In terms of a character study, American Revolutionary provides a fascinating chronicle of Boggs’ life. But in terms of having Boggs’ life serve as a key to unlock important overlooked moments of the radical past, as does her autobiography, it fails miserably. But as the director admits, this was not the film’s intention, and PBS would not be so bold as to offend its underwriters’ privilege and control by offering such fare.
As an entry into the radical past American Revolutionary might serve some good for discussion groups or self-motivated viewers who might further explore it on their own. Otherwise, it becomes a documentary that merely wants to offer the appearance of revolution while anesthetizing any deeper understanding of the forces involved. It wants self-transformation to substitute for revolution as we witness Boggs’s many incarnations throughout the ages from Marxist to supporter of black liberation to self-identified Black Power radical to self-identified woman and Asian-American.
It wants to supplant revolution with the evolution of Boggs, replace the public with the personal, so that PBS can offer a “liberal” message while not asking the kind of difficult questions that a fully engaged documentary might provoke, such as: how corporate underwriting compromises the types of films PBS can produce; why insufficient public funding leads to the need for corporate underwriting; and what an actually publicly controlled television station might look like?
These are the types of questions that Boggs herself actually asks. But American Revolutionary is not of the same caliber and independence as its subject. So at its best we can only get glimpses of the various communities and contexts that helped define Boggs. Boggs might be an American revolutionary, but the film can only presents to us a caged one.
Chris Robé is an associate professor of film and media studies. He's published within various journals such as Jump Cut, Cinema Journal, Framework, and Culture, Theory and Critique. His monograph Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Left Film Culture was published by University of Texas Press. His article, "'Because I Hate Fathers, and I Never Wanted to Be One': Wes Anderson, Entitled Masculinity, and the 'Crisis' of the Patriarch" appears within the anthology Millennial Masculinity: Men in Contemporary Cinema. He is currently on sabbatical completing a book on video activism and the new anarchism within North America from the 1970s to the present. In his spare time he agitates for his friendly faculty union.