When Korean-American filmmaker Grace Lee set out to make a documentary about the sundry other Grace Lees in the world, she had no idea such a simple idea could turn into a poignant film so rich with political and social commentary.
Growing up in a tiny Asian community in rural Missouri, Lee always assumed her name was unique. After all, she was the only Grace Lee that she knew. It wasn't until she moved to New York City that she discovered the name Grace Lee is inexplicably common among Asian-American women. Then, she began to realize that nearly every Grace Lee she encountered could be summed up with the common stereotypes of Asian women: nice, smart, shy, quiet, piano-playing bookworms.
Grace Lee the documentarian was none of these things, so the discovery inspired her cinematic quest to find other Grace Lees who broke the mold.
Not content with being the lone outsider in a club of "super Asians," Lee spent three years documenting the lives of other Grace Lees around the country. Among her discoveries: a San Francisco student who tried to burn down her high school, and a bubbly 14-year-old piano player with a penchant for drawing violent and gruesome pictures.
Lee presents an important challenge to the notion of a shared Asian-American female identity. And, surprisingly, there are very few moments in the film that are predictable.
Detroit audiences will be pleased to see that the Motor City's 90-year-old firebrand activist Grace Lee Boggs is a central figure in the film, and, not surprisingly, one of the most enigmatic characters on screen. Lee spends a considerable amount of time with Boggs, who lives on Detroit's east side, following her work with the local nonprofit activist youth group Detroit Summer, and delving into Boggs' experiences working for social change inside of black communities over the past 50 years.
Shot with remarkable comedic perspective, Lee manages to not only identify magnetic characters for her documentary, but also slips in just enough social commentary to make this a film with purpose. No two Grace Lees in the film are alike, and that's hardly even the point of the documentary. Yes, there are lesbian rights activists named Grace Lee and Bible-thumping Christians named Grace Lee as well, but what vital messages do these individuals have to share with the world at large? What resonates the most is how such a low-budget documentary manages to cover race, identity, stereotypes, culture and humor so well in a mere 68 minutes. Also fascinating is the examination of actress Grace Kelly's popularity among first-generation Asian parents and the ubiquity of the word "grace" in Korean culture.
Both Grace Lee the filmmaker and Grace Lee Boggs will be on hand to speak at the Detroit screening of The Grace Lee Project. There is a $35 VIP pre-screening reception at 6:30 p.m.; tickets for the general screening at 8 p.m. operate on a $10-20 sliding scale for adults, and $5 for students and youth.
And, of course, all women named Grace Lee can attend free of charge with proper identification.
8 p.m., Saturday, March 18, at Barth Hall in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, (4800 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-333-3112). Tickets $10-$20 for adults; $5 students and youth; $35 VIP reception at 6:30 p.m. Visit gracelee.net.
Jonathan Cunningham writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.