We’ve just returned from a week of learning about voice and ownership in film, Marv’s and my fifth season at The Chautauqua Institute with Road Scholar. As a writer, I am drawn to topics that edify and explicate literary aspects of the creative process. What better way to understand process than to listen to an astute interviewer dig into the background, motivation and story of the birth of a film.
Day five, Ann Hornaday, film critic for the Washington Post interviewed Grace Lee on what prompted her to begin her film career with “The Grace Lee Project,” in which she interviewed women named “Grace Lee” from all over the country. As an Asian American who grew up in Missouri, she was the only person she knew with her first name, but upon moving to New York and California, she realized there were many women with her full name. Likening the name “Grace Lee” to the “Jane Smith of Asian-American names,” the germ of her project was born and she set out to interview Grace Lees all over the country.
When I started asking other people about the Grace Lees they once knew, they were always stereotypically perfect, over-achieving Asian Americans. They went to Harvard at age 15, were excellent violin players…devout Christians, and I was none of those things. (Chautauqua Daily)
During the making of this 2005 film, she met Grace Lee Boggs, an Octogenerian Chinese-American woman who lived and worked as an activist-writer in a predominantly African American community in Detroit. A decade later, Lee returned to Boggs at age ninety to make a film titled “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.”
As a writer of memoir, as a clinician who savors story, the film clips and discussion of how Grace Lee and her camera crew followed Boggs about on her daily encounters mesmerized me. Earlier in the week, listening to Ken Burns and his two writer colleagues, I learned the value and importance of weaving “stills” and back footage into the story line.
I attended Wayne University in Detroit in 1953, just at the time whites were fleeing to the suburbs as African Americans were moving into neighborhoods. As a sociology major, I went from door to door, interviewing whites and African Americans about their neighborhood concerns. Wariness of the “other” was everywhere. I was on the fringe, unaware of Bogg’s world, encased in an academic bubble.
Lee, who had taken on the Grace Lee film as a way to research the stereotypical Asian-American as “passive,” commented how she had studied social history and the civil rights movement in college but also had never heard of Boggs. She zoomed into Boggs life, thereby transporting me to a time before the women’s movement, before Betty Friedan’s book, to Boggs’ 70 years of living in and advocating for the African American community.
After a week of film clips and discussions from film directors and writers, I am appreciative and grateful for the special visual and auditory qualities of documentary film story telling. I wish I had known about Grace Lee Boggs when I was a student at Wayne; she was such an inspirational woman. Thanks, to Grace Lee.