Cinema is full of unlikely heroes, and yet the real-life activist Grace Lee Boggs is more improbable still: a Chinese American black-power radical armed with a doctorate in philosophy.
A legend in ethnic studies circles, Boggs receives the big-screen treatment in the superb “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” a documentary that’s admirably frank about the difficulties of insightfully portraying such a widely lauded — and subtly cagey and habitually self-effacing — figure.
The doctorate Boggs earned at age 25 proved of little value in 1940, when even department stores proclaimed, “We don’t hire Orientals.” Thus Boggs converted her education into something more meaningful: adapting 19th century German philosophy into an outline for black liberation.
In African American neighborhoods of Chicago and Detroit, Boggs was a foot soldier, coordinating community projects and political meetings, though she was most comfortable in salons and classrooms debating the necessity and dangers of revolution.
Director Grace Lee (no relation to her subject) adroitly sums up Boggs’ contributions to the African and Asian American movements, but her film is most revealing when it captures the two sides of Boggs’ open, toothy smile, which serves as both an invitation to conversation and a deflection of her inner self. Lee never manages to pry Boggs open, but it’s clear the 98-year-old activist is too busy teaching, lecturing and volunteering to pore over old regrets.
“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.”
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes.
At Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena.
Also on the PBS documentary series “POV” on June 30.