AIF Docs 2013: ‘American Revolutionary’ + ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’

“I would say do something local. Do something real, however, small. And don’t diss the political things, but understand their limitations.”

Grace Lee Boggs, 15 June 2007

“This [case] shows us that it is important, now more than ever, to educate our neighbors and communities about building local power to ensure that all votes are protected.”

Christina Sanders, in “Supreme Court Guts Voting Rights Act,” 25 June 2013

“Changing was really more honorable than not changing.” Looking back on her extraordinary life, Grace Lee Boggs is less interested in evaluating or explaining than in persisting, or put another way, in more living. For the 97-year-old activist and author, this means talking, or, as she terms it, having conversations, finding ways to change.

To this end, and again and again in American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, she makes pronouncements, asks questions, and urges debate. And to this end, the film — which screened at this month’s AFI Docs and also at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature — does not provide answers or even much in the way of resolution. Rather, it serves as something like a primer to Boggs’ thinking, her contexts, her lessons learned, and her continuing pursuit of engagement.

This primer is shaped by filmmaker Grace Lee, who met Boggs during the making of her 2005 film, The Grace Lee Project. “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be and you do choose how you want to think,” Boggs says. Born in 1915 to Chinese immigrants (her father had a Chinese restaurant on Broadway during the 1920s), she won a scholarship to Barnard and discovered Hegel, who, she says, “really changed my way of thinking.” As the film presents a kind of Philosophy 101 graphic (“Every idea contained its opposite”), she explains, “You keep realizing that reality is changing.”

The film deftly charts Boggs’ ongoing realizing: after completing her PhD at Bryn Mawr in 1940, she faced discrimination on the academic market, at last landing a low-paying job at the University of Chicago Philosophy Library. After working with the Workers’ Party on tenants’ rights, and C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya on the Johnson-Forest Tendency, she met and married activist and autoworker Jimmy Boggs in Detroit (“Detroit was where the workers were,” she says, “where you needed to be”), with whom she worked on the newsletter Correspondence, wrote books, organized workers and communities in Detroit.

“Friends of his said I had no idea what it was like to be married to a black man,” she recalls, “and I didn’t.” Their evolution together made each more resilient and also more connected to an emerging political movement and a community they helped to build. “I saw myself as a part and apart from the community,” Boggs says, a point underlined by Angela Davis, who asserts that Boggs “played an absolutely formative role in the forging of what we call the Black radical tradition.”

That forging is clear in American Revolutionary‘s sampling of speeches by and archival interviews with both Grace and Jimmy, their work as organizers, agitators, and often charming public intellectuals (demonstrated in a clip from their appearance on PBS’ Ossie and Ruby!). Audio recordings chart Boggs’ challenges to structures of power (“I don’t think whites understand the degree to which Negroes do not want their whiteness”), as well as to her friends. As you watch a reel-to-reel recorder, Boggs says, “We are the only living things that have conversations,” and she regularly records them because “when you have a conversation, you never know what’s going to come out.”

In anticipating change, in her many decades of effecting and embracing it, Boggs is at once consistent and elastic, durable and mobile. In all of these dimensions and more, Boggs’ story if of a piece with another that screened at AFI Docs, The Trials of Muhammad Ali. As its title suggests, Bill Siegel’s movie looks at a series of legal and public challenges for Ali, beginning with the questions that swirled around Cassius Clay’s decision, following the Sonny Liston fight in 1964, to join the Nation of Islam and change his name. The film is comprised of archival footage and interviews with people who knew him when, including his second wife Khalilah Ali, whom he met when she was just 10 years old and rejected his offer of an autograph because, she recalls, he seemed too arrogant; his daughter Hannah, who calls him “the eighth wonder of the world”; and Gordon Davidson, of the Louisville Contract Group who managed him as Cassius Clay. Included as well is Louis Farrakhan, who makes the sorts of assessments you might expect, for instance, that Ali “wanted to become a part of a movement that would free the minds and hearts of our people, so he became a follower”). Ai himself appears in photos and old footage, and in these instances, he is as vibrant and charismatic as everyone else describes him.

This structure in itself provides an instructive contrast with American Revolutionary, which is so suffused with the presence of Grace Lee Boggs. Because Ali is represented at this distance, he appears much as Robert Lipsyte describes him near film’s end, a product of a collective desire and also a series of changing contexts. “We created a symbol, and Muhammad Ali has long since been supplanted by what we believe he is,” Lipsyte says, “There are so many ways of looking at him that have only to do with us and have nothing to do with him.”

The film illustrates the process pretty plainly, with newspaper headlines and bits of press conferences, but it also raises questions about how such a public life can possibly mean so much and so variously for so many. The contexts for his trials are vivid here, from the opening images, a segment from the television interview where David Susskind famously decried the champion as “a disgrace to his race to his country and to what he laughingly describes as his profession,” to speeches by Malcolm X (“Don’t let the white man speak for you and don’t let the white man fight for you”) and Martin Luther King, Jr., who appears in several shots with Ali, and then, as he orates, “Those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty, those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who opposes the war in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our soldiers is a person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition.”

As the film makes the case that Ali represents the “best of our tradition,” it showcases the legal trials that began with Ali’s 1967 refusal to be inducted into the US Army on the basis of his religious beliefs. Sentenced to five years in prison, he lost his Heavyweight Championship and found himself subjected to all sorts of invective, judgment, and diatribe, demonstrated so by David Susskind at the start of this documentary. Ali appealed the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled against eth conviction for draft evasion, in 1971. Observes Thomas Krattenmaker, then a clerk for Justice John Harlan, “The Ali case exposed how awkward the legal system was and how arbitrary and capricious it was.”

The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)

It also allowed Ali vindication and a return to boxing, and he went on to make more history in the ring and out of it. The Trials of Muhammad Ali frames this next set of acts in the champ’s long career as a consequence of the political courage, personal conflicts, and passionate, increasingly nuanced pronouncements he made during this period. Ali now stands as a model for political protest and social justice, and the film shows how this status was born of these trials.