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Project shows how Detroit's Grace Lee stands out in a crowd
by Laura Berman, Detroit News
March 02, 2006

In a sea of 2,000 women named Grace Lee -- many of them fulfilling a stereotype (nice, quiet, forgettable) of "generic Asian girl" that filmmaker Grace Lee wittily explores in a new documentary -- it is the Grace Lee of Detroit who emerges as the unforgettable one.

This is Grace Lee Boggs, who at age 90, after 53 years in Detroit using words like "struggle" and "revolution" as often as most of us say "car keys," is forging a new identity as Asian-American role model.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants who owned Manhattan restaurants, Detroit's Grace Lee earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from elite Bryn Mawr, before moving to Detroit in her 30s and marrying Jimmy Boggs, an African-American activist whose radical vision of a better America matched hers.

In the 68-minute "The Grace Lee Project," one of Boggs' Detroit neighbors says, "We used to call her Grace X because she's such a revolutionary."

A world of Grace Lees

Director Grace Lee -- the Missouri-born daughter of Korean immigrants -- was searching databases for her "Grace Lee Project" seeking to belie the statistical evidence that the typical G.L. is an American-born 25-year-old woman, 5'3", probably has a master's degree and almost four years of piano lessons under her belt.

Frustrated by the common-ness of her name among Asian-Americans, the filmmaker sought proof that "we're not that Grace Lee," high-achieving, sweet and indistinguishable, one from the other.

In the world of Grace Lees, it was the Detroit version who uniquely identified with the struggle of African-Americans. Why not her own ethnicity?

Because, she answers onscreen, neither the Chinese-American nor women's movements had emerged when Grace Lee Boggs came of age. To the filmmaker, "who can't imagine a world that is not preoccupied with identity," and to the viewer, Boggs' long, historical perspective is a revelation.

Catalyst for change

Boggs lives on Detroit's east side in a house decorated with books, fine art and "End Apartheid" posters. Over the years, her house has been stripped by thieves of its beveled glass, statuary, and even an oak front door. She stays on "because it is home," and perhaps because she sees struggle as part of life and progress.

At 90, she is intensely, actively engaged by the world she still intends to change, working with university students, surfing Web sites and reading at a ferocious pace -- smashing stereotypes and refining her politics.

As Grace Lee, the director, says in a phone call from Los Angeles, "In the end … we all have the potential to be statistically average and to be Grace Lee Boggs." To be categorized and to defy categorization.

That's the reflective and ironic message of "The Grace Lee Project," and the story too of its longest-lived -- yet ageless -- subject.

Visit Detroitsummer.org for information about a March 18 screening in Detroit, with remarks by Grace Lee Boggs and director Grace Lee. All Grace Lees will be admitted free.

You can reach Laura Berman at (248) 647-7221 or lberman@detnews.com.