Two documentaries arriving in New York this week are stirring testaments to the political and cultural heritage of the Black community. Ironically, the first—“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”—that opened yesterday at the AMC Loew’s on 19th Street is about a 98 year old Chinese-American woman whose entire political life was so enmeshed with the Detroit Black struggle that everybody regarded her as an African-American. The other film is “Brothers Hypnotic”, a film about the young sons of an alumnus of the Son Ra Orchestra who formed a brass ensemble that simultaneously reflects their father’s Black consciousness while stubbornly sticking to its own musical agenda. It opens on Monday at the Maysles Theater in Harlem, the go-to place for outstanding documentaries engaged with the Black experience.
For those who follow my film reviews, you are probably aware that I avoid the kind of hyperbolic praise that gets attached to those full-page ads in the NY Times. So when I tell you that “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” is the greatest documentary about an American leftist I have ever seen, I mean it. Granted that they are far and few between, this is still a movie that had me spellbound from beginning to end. It reminded me—and would remind anybody who ever passed out a leaflet—what it means to challenge the system and why such a life is so much worth living, no matter how many times your nose gets bloodied in the process.
Grace Lee Boggs, the daughter of a man who owned a successful Chinese restaurant, began studying at Barnard College just as the Great Depression was at its deepest point. Like so many other children of privilege, she decided that her lot was with the unemployed and the working class. But unlike most of her peers, she gravitated toward the Trotskyist movement rather than the CP. Obtaining a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940, she found herself deeply influenced by Hegel and particularly the role of the dialectic that she thought useful in understanding capitalist society. This Hegelian predisposition naturally led her to the Workers Party shortly after hearing CLR James speak in Chicago. James had been a co-leader of the “Johnson-Forrest” tendency in the SWP (he was Johnson and Raya Dunayevskaya was Forrest) and a leading theorist of the Black struggle.
The film does not really delve too deeply in the Byzantine twists and turns of the Trotskyist movement (broadly defined) but James and Dunayevskaya broke with the Workers Party because of what they considered its foot-dragging in the Black struggle and rejoined the SWP in 1947. In 1950 the Johnson-Forrest tendency abandoned the SWP and set up shop as the Correspondence group, named after their magazine.
One of the more important members of the Correspondence group was James Boggs, a working-class African-American from the Deep South who after meeting Grace Lee wasted no time in proposing marriage. The Boggs’s closest collaborator was Marty Glaberman who was the editor of the magazine.
Chinese-American director Grace Lee’s first film was “The Grace Lee Project”, an attempt to find namesakes who defied the stereotype of an Asian woman who was as Rotten Tomatoes described it: “a quiet, studious over-achiever who was cheerful, Christian, and never got into trouble.” Nobody could be more unalike from that than Grace Lee Boggs who not only didn’t think of herself as Chinese but also was just one step ahead of being thrown in jail as a subversive. The new film includes footage of the 2005 documentary with a spry 84-year-old Grace Lee Boggs walking so fast that the director could barely keep up with her.
“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” includes a generous helping of James Boggs footage, a man I regret never having read. When the couple moved to Detroit, James took a job at Chrysler in order to understand the changes in the working class as well as changes in the industry. This was not a “colonization” effort but much more of an attempt to make a living while conducting research on the class struggle. Boggs wrote a book titled “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook” that includes some of the earliest insights into the role that automation would play in the capitalist system. It is interesting that both he and Harry Braverman, another defector from Trotskyist dogmatism, would explore such a major transformation of American capitalism during its infancy.
Grace Lee Boggs is nowhere near as spry today as she was in 2005 but her mind is as sharp as it ever was. The film shows her interacting with young activists for whom she is a legendary figure. Although Detroit has pretty much become “Destroit” as SWP comrades from that city used to refer to it in the 1970s, she remains optimistic about its future. Her most recent projects include community gardening and safe street initiatives seemingly different from her more militant activism of 50 years ago but that still incorporate her deepest humanistic impulses.
Toward the end of the film, there is a fascinating exchange between the director and her subject over her unceasing optimism. Doesn’t she have any regrets about what she did with her life, including her decision not to have children? And how could she feel fulfilled when so many of her projects withered on the vine?
In 1999 Paul Buhle wrote a review of her memoir “Living for Change” that addressed the question of the disjunction between goals and the achievements that is worth quoting:
Lee herself moved to Detroit in 1953, married black auto worker James Boggs, and commenced a life of unceasing local activism. Much of the rest of Living For Change settles into a detailed description of personal life that defies summarization, but offers a rewarding, intimate study of ideas and activities in the cauldron of race and class contradictions during the 1950s-1990s. I remember once calling Detroit information without Grace’s home address and the telephone operator exclaiming, “You mean Grace Boggs!” It is no exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of Detroiters regarded the couple as perennially scrappy but beloved members of an extended family.
In some ways the story is heartbreaking. The group around C.L.R James disintegrated and one by one, the Boggses broke with their erstwhile comrades over personal and political differences. The early promise of the civil rights movement, which so roused black Detroit and the Boggs’ supporters, was stifled by the waves of massively destructive “urban renewal,” suburbanization and plant closings, bringing increased poverty and despair. New organizations, like the groupings around the Manifesto for a Black Political Party and their own National Organization for an American Revolution, failed after making a contribution to educating young (especially black) radicals through pamphlets, study groups and endless personal appearances by the two at conferences. In the end, as once-radical mayor Coleman Young bowed to the corporations to keep Detroit afloat, and the black middle class followed whites in abandoning the inner city, the Boggses with the rest of the Left were outgunned, bypassed by the postindustrial recklessness of capitalism.
But Grace Lee Boggs was never one to be kept down by mere defeats. As memorable volumes by James Boggs for MR Press pushed beyond received truths to creative adaptation-sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always creative-race found new ways to make herself useful. ln identifying with the black community for decades, she emerged during the 1970s-1980s as a public speaker and intimate advisor for (and to) Asian-American Studies. Meanwhile, she joined with other community activists in new coalitions against drugs, violence, and casino-gambling in Detroit, among many other causes. Ossie Davis catches the spirit when he says about her story, ” Here is a book for the hungering heart, or even a picnic.” With Grace Lee Boggs, it could not be otherwise.
My very highest recommendation for “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”.
In one of the more memorable comments from Grace Lee Boggs in the aforementioned film that dates from the early 60s, she says that Blacks are not trying to become equal to whites but equal to the image they have in their mind of a fulfilled and free Black American.
That would describe Phil Cohran to a tee. Born in 1927, he was a successful jazz musician who turned his back on moneymaking gigs and founded the Affro-Arts Theater and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago during the 1960s, projects associated with cultural and political challenges to the status quo.
The Affro-Arts Theater was a regular venue for Black militants, so much so that it became the obsession of the local Red Squad. After Stokely Carmichael spoke there, the cops convinced a judge to shut it down.
His personal life was just as radical as his artistic life. In addition to the eight children he fathered with one wife, he initiated relationships with two other women who moved into his Chicago home. At one point twenty-four of their offspring were living with Phil and his three wives in a sort of benign version of Philadelphia’s MOVE. The house was a vegetarian and Black consciousness haven dedicated most of all to the religion of Black music, particularly jazz. As luck would have it, all three women were trained musicians.
8 of the Cohran boys would study brass instruments from an early age. Like any other young men, they rebelled against their father without any likely nod to Freud’s Oedipal Complex. Instead the rebellion was based on their own ideas about what kind of music they would play.
The band they formed, Brothers Hypnotic, was an eclectic blend of jazz, gospel, hip-hop and what sounds to my ears a lot like Gabrieli—with a complex polyphonic texture. They started off as a street band but later evolved into a more conventional concert venue act that toured Europe and performed with stars like Prince and Mos Def.
Directed by first-timer Reuben Atlas, the film adheres pretty much to concert tour documentaries that have been made about groups like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Most of it consists of performances or the musicians talking about music and their lives.
What they seem to share with their father after all is said and done is a fierce independence of mind that makes them wary of becoming just another band signed with a commercial label. Unlike so many hip-hop artists with a crass devotion to filthy lucre, the Hypnotic Brothers are committed above all to their artistic vision. As such, this documentary has inspirational value in a period of history lacking much in the way of inspiration.