In the final lecture on Week Nine’s theme, “Documentary Film as Facilitator: Storytelling, Influence and Civil Discourse,” filmmaker Grace Lee discussed stereotypes facing Asian-American women, the collective memory of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and the roles of women in politics.
At 10:45 a.m. Friday, Aug. 24, in the Amphitheater, Lee talked about both the substance and style of her work with Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post’s chief film critic.
Lee was born and raised in Columbia, Missouri. She would go on to attend the prestigious UCLA Film School, and has now directed films in styles ranging from narrative fiction to documentary. Lee’s work often deals with stereotypes, identity and culture.
In her 2005 film, “The Grace Lee Project,” Lee interviewed women from all over the country that share the name Grace Lee. When Lee was growing up in Missouri, she was the only person she knew with her first name. To her surprise, when she moved to places like New York or California, she found that her full name, Grace Lee, was actually quite common.
“It’s like the Jane Smith of Asian-American names,” she said. “But more interestingly, when I started asking these other people about the Grace Lees that they once knew, they were always stereotypically perfect, overachieving Asian-Americans. They went to Harvard at age 15, were excellent violin players, they were devout Christians, and I was none of those things.”
So, Lee set out to test the validity of those stereotypes. She said she traveled the country and met with many different women named Grace Lee, trying to put together a picture of their actual identities compared to the stereotypically expected ones.
On that journey, Lee met Grace Lee Boggs, an elderly Chinese-American woman who for 50 years had lived and worked as an activist in a predominantly African-American community in Detroit. Boggs — described by Lee as an “incredible philosopher-activist-writer” — was in her mid-80s when Lee made “The Grace Lee Project.”
Boggs’ story stuck with Lee. A decade after “The Grace Lee Project,” Lee made a film that took a deeper look at Boggs’ life, titled “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” Boggs was 95.
Lee then played a clip from “American Revolutionary.” Lee and Boggs are in Boggs’ kitchen, and Boggs has asked Lee to trim the hair on the back of her head and neck, which Lee is doing.
“You know, it’s very funny what happens to the hair of old people,” Boggs says. “You begin getting hair in your nostrils. Did you know that?”
The audience chuckled. Lee would go on to explain that she includes humorous moments because they help people from different backgrounds and perspectives to identify with the film’s subject.
Later in the clip, prompted by Lee’s questions, Boggs gives her perspective on identity and stereotypes.
“You said one of the reasons for you making this Grace Lee documentary, I’m paraphrasing, was that you wanted to refute the stereotype of Asian-American women as passive. The whole thing has different meaning for me,” Boggs says. “I didn’t think of myself so much as Chinese-American, and I didn’t think of myself so much as a woman, because the Chinese-American movement hadn’t emerged, and the women’s movement hadn’t emerged.”
Hornaday and Lee then dissected both the content and style decisions in the clip. First, Hornaday asked why Lee made the decision to include herself in the film.
“I did not want to be in this film, because I had already made a film called ‘The Grace Lee Project,’ ” Lee said. “How self-indulgent is that? And Grace Lee Boggs was only in it briefly, so I was determined that no, I’m not going to be in this film because (Boggs) has 70 years of movement and history in Detroit, and we need the time to get to it.”
However, Lee’s editor suggested that much of the footage of both women together was compelling, in part because it showed the relationship between Boggs and Lee. The hair-cutting scene, Lee said, is a prime example. Lee ultimately agreed with her editor.
Lee’s closeness with her subject, according to Hornaday, contrasts with the distance that “classicist” documentarians like Ken Burns often employ. Again using the example of the hair-cutting scene, Hornaday asked Lee about the intimacy in “American Revolutionary.”
“Grace Lee Boggs is somebody very personally important to me,” Lee said. “As someone who studied history in college, I studied the civil rights movement, I studied social history — how could I never have heard of this person? Another second-generation, Asian-American woman, daughter of immigrants, living in the Midwest like I was, but I had never heard of her.
“Seeing these kinds of same histories is something that really motivates me in terms of the kinds of stories I want to tell. I have to be personally engaged. That’s what’s going to motivate me through the many years of trying to find funding, trying to follow a story even when I don’t know what the end result is going to be.”
-Grace Lee, Filmmaker
The next work the two discussed was Lee’s 2017 interactive web documentary, “K-Town ‘92,” about the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
“That was an event that made a huge impact on me 26 years ago, not only because it was such an explosive moment in this country’s history,” Lee said, “but because, for the first time, Korean-Americans showed up in the media.”
The images, however, were not positive — news coverage of the riots mostly showed armed Korean-Americans standing on the roofs of their businesses to protect them from rioters, or mourning the loss of their businesses after they had been burned down, according to Lee.
“K-Town ‘92” puts that news footage next to archival footage and interviews, from both 1992 and 2017. After watching an introductory segment, users can navigate a repository of clips from all of those perspectives. Lee’s aim, she said, was to give viewers a pick-your-own-narrative experience.
“One of the big questions of ‘K-Town ‘92’ is, ‘Who gets to tell the story of Los Angeles, 1992?’ ” Lee said. “I really felt as somebody living in Los Angeles for the last 20 years, as somebody rooted in the Korean-American community, that these films were going to continue to recycle the same kinds of archival images that I found weren’t telling the whole story.”
In response, Lee set out to create a representation of the riots that put the multiple narratives on an even plane, “flattening” the narrative. By taking the voice of the filmmaker out of the equation, she said, viewers can experience the events according to their own interests.
Before “K-Town ‘92,” Lee had experience in a different experimental genre — the mockumentary. Her 2012 film “Janeane From Des Moines” incorporates real footage from the 2012 presidential campaign trail, but the main character Janeane — a conservative housewife seeking answers from Republican politicians ahead of the Iowa caucuses — is played by actor Jane Wilson.
Hornaday asked Lee about pushback the film received — some felt that it was not upfront enough about the fact that many of the scenes were scripted, and the main character was an actor.
Lee pointed out that the film was never intended to be a documentary, and when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it was not in the documentary category. Lee also emphasized that campaign events are not entirely unscripted, either, calling them “political theater.”
“(The film) is really a question about who is performing,” Lee said. “Is Jane Wilson performing as Janeane, who has really embodied the kind of needs and distresses that she’s going through in the story? Or are Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachman performing to some extent when they talk to voters?”
The final clip shown at the lecture came from Lee’s yet-unreleased project covering the current surge of women of color running for political office. The clip showed Lucy McBath, a candidate for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, arriving at a campaign event to a large, welcoming crowd.
McBath was originally running for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives, but after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting earlier this year, she decided to run for Congress.
Lee’s production team is all women of color — a conscious choice, she said.
“One of the things I’ve observed is that when you have a close cultural connection to this community, you’re going get different results,” she said, “rather than just parachuting in and trying to tell a story that people have already told — the kinds of stories that news crews come in and tell.”
In 2016, Lee’s work earned her an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the International Documentary Association’s Getting Real Conference. The main themes of the conference, which she spoke about in her address, were art, diversity and sustainability.
In part of that address, which Hornaday read to the audience in the Amp, Lee spoke about how the three themes were inseparable to her. She said they also prompted difficult questions about what the documentary community looked like, who got to be a part of it, and which stories mattered — all themes that she explores in her own work, often through the perspective of Asian-Americans.
“I had to make a decision, like, I don’t know if I should talk about Asian-Americans because this is the broader documentary community,” she said. “But then I realized, if I don’t talk about it, we’ll never talk about it. If I’m given this platform, I have to talk about it.”