The ‘Let’s Start A Revolution’ event which took place at Hallesches Haus on Sunday night, honoured the impending 100th birthday of feminist, activist, writer and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs. The Berlin Feminist Film Week event showcased two short animations from talented director and animator Kelly Gallagher, followed by the main film of the night, the inspirational documentary ‘American Revolutionary’ which explores and pays tribute to the life of Grace Lee Boggs.
Starting the night off were Kelly Gallagher’s two short animation films. The first, ‘Pearl Pistols’, was a dynamic and colourful animation that made use of archive footage and a speech from the US civil rights revolutionary Queen Mother Moore. The second, ‘Pen Up The Pigs’, was an intricate collage animation that addressed the connections between slavery, the modern day incarceration system and institutional racism. The film portrayed the way in which the power and strength of collective revolutionary thought and action can fight against the oppression and racism that has become embedded in our everyday societal structures and systems.
Gallagher’s radical animations were then followed by the headlining screening of the evening, ‘American Revolutionary’, directed by Grace Lee. Consisting of archive footage, interviews and fly on the wall style cinematography, the film articulately captured the ethos of the social movements of the past century, most notably the black civil rights movement, shining a light on the radical revolutionary acts and inspiring life of Grace Lee Boggs.
The film starts by taking us back to Grace’s years as a student at Barnard College in New York City, where her passion for philosophy and activism was first ignited. Graduating in 1935, Grace had come to develop a keen fascination with the philosophers Kant and Hegel. She was particularly interested in Hegel’s theory that every idea consists also of its opposite idea; that the basis of reality is constantly changing and in flux. Grace grasped this theory and took it on as her own, holding the belief that we must always be willing to change and adapt our ideas and ourselves, as without this our ideas become meaningless. This notion is a key thread throughout the film, and came to stand for Grace’s approach to activism and all revolutionary endeavours, stating in the film that “the ability to transform oneself to transform the world” is the key.
As the film progresses we follow Grace as she moves to Chicago in the 1940’s. It was here that Grace first came face to face with the societal oppression that was taking place for African Americans at the time, who were dealing with poverty and unemployment in a post depression era. It was at this point that Grace’s radical activism began to take off, as she became an activist for tenants’ rights after hearing about the rat-infested homes of many people in the black community. She then went on to become a member of the far left Worker’s Party, rallying for the civil rights of the African American community.
In 1953, she moved to Detroit and married the Alabama-born black activist James Boggs who was to be her political collaborator for the next four decades. Detroit had become the first city in the US to have a predominantly black population, and although there were some employment opportunities in the motor industry, the plight of black workers in the city had been neglected causing an array of problems and struggles for the African American community. These difficulties were exacerbated after some of the automobile factories in the city closed down, leaving thousands unemployed and causing an escalating crime rate, meaning that many who had the affluence to do so left the city. It was during this time that Grace became a founding member of the Black Power Movement, fighting to achieve a governmental system where Detroit could be accurately represented by its own community as opposed to a solely white government. Grace fought and strived to give the black population a voice to regain ownership of their culture, as well as the power to reclaim Detroit as their city and their home.
The city of Detroit, with all of its hopes, struggles and contradictions of violence vs. non-violence, came to be the focus of Grace’s activism for the rest of her life. From the 1967 riots up until the 1980s and the current drug problems of the city, Detroit’s turbulent past and present day situation is a complex one, which calls for the re-development of the city and the re-engagement of its population and community. Grace’s efforts to help with regeneration in Detroit, is exemplified towards the end of the documentary by her multicultural youth program ‘Detroit Summer’. Founded in 1992, and continuing on until the present day, the program helps Detroit’s youth community to engage with their city, teaching them to contribute to its redevelopment and regeneration.
Although Grace is now in her 100th year, she still continues to inspire the people around her with her revolutionary activism, and philosophical musings on the ever changing outside world. She heralds the importance and power of ideas as subject to change and development, emphasising that our reality is fluid and constantly in motion. Grace teaches us that revolution is a part of our evolution, and our human experience. However, it is we ourselves who must take on the responsibility to evolve and change ourselves, through reflection and dialogue, before we go about trying to change the world. Her stance that real change and revolution comes from within is meditative and radically simplistic, and it is with this sense of clarity and inspiring approach to revolution and activism that Grace has moved the black civil rights movement forward, has influenced so many, and will go on to inspire many more in the next century to come.