Filmmaker Grace Lee has explored topics as varied as politics, food, zombies, and even other women who share her name. The thread that ties her body of work together? Things that she can’t stop thinking about. “It all stems from some very personal thing I want to explore,” said Lee over the phone. “If I don’t have a personal obsession with it, I’m not going to work on it.”
Those interests led Lee to investigate the experiences of women of color in politics, culminating in her latest documentary And She Could Be Next (CAAMFest 2020 Documentary Award). Back in 2016, when the possibility of the first female president of American seemed just within reach, producer Jyoti Sarda approached Lee with the idea. Even though Hillary Clinton didn’t win the White House, the themes of female political candidates and the growing clout of voters of color remained relevant. “All these other factors and the way the demographics are shifting, and all of the work that I’ve done until now about communities of color and women immigrants, it just felt like the right time to make a political documentary that centered on women of color,” says Lee.
In June, Lee—along with Marjan Safinia and Jyoti Sarda—premiered And She Could Be Next over two nights on PBS. The two parts followed seven women of color at the center of the New American Majority through their 2018 campaigns. Some stories led to being sworn in at the Capitol; others ended in election night disappointment.
Women in politics is a thread that runs through Lee’s recent work. Leading up to the 2012 elections, Lee produced the film Janeane from Des Moines, which followed a fictional white Midwestern mom to the Republican National Convention. While working on an episode of Makers, a 2013 PBS series about women’s rights in America, Lee first met Rashida Tlaib. Like Lee, Tlaib was from the Midwest, the daughter of immigrants, and the mother of a young child. “I can really relate to this person,” she recalled thinking after meeting Tlaib—the first time she felt that way about a politician. “I hadn’t really seen that in a politician before. Those are the kinds of subject matter I tend to be interested in my own filmmaking.” Tlaib became one of the main subjects of And She Could Be Next.
Not every one of Lee’s ideas has turned into a successful production. Her first big project out of UCLA film school was a Korean movie. Pre-production was well underway when the production company shut it down. She packed her bags, came back to the U.S., and started work on what she describes as her “rebound” movie, a mockumentary called American Zombie.
The path of Lee’s career resembles a trail of dominoes: one project triggers an idea for the next. In fact, the underlying message of And She Could Be Next—there’s an organizer in all of us—was inspired by another, earlier, woman of color working for equality.
“I think I learned that while I was making the Grace Lee Boggs film,” Lee reflects. “Being exposed to her ideas, who she is, and what she does really affected me.”
Her friends and connections in Detroit, where she had spent time over a span of 10 years filming American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, first told her about Rashida Tlaib. And she originally learned about Grace Lee Boggs while filming her 2005 documentary The Grace Lee Project, an idea that had been floating around in her head years before she actually picked up a camera. “I just thought, I don’t think I can do this. This is too self-indulgent. Um, who cares?” she laughs. But people kept telling her about other Asian American women named Grace Lee, who were always described as exemplars of the model minority myth. “Weirdly, people were really into the Grace Lee project,” she says. “People just thought it was a clever idea, and I didn’t really need a lot of money to do it.”
However, when she set out to create a documentary focusing solely on the life and activism of Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit, it was initially met with a less-than-enthusiastic response.
“With American Revolutionary, in the beginning people just didn’t get it. It’s a very complex story,” Lee explains. “I guess I had faith that this was such a compelling story. I knew there was an audience out there.”
American Revolutionary ultimately was shown at CAAMFest in 2014, where it was the Centerpiece Presentation, and Lee was a Spotlight Honoree. Lee’s confidence in following her own interests has led her to make a diverse range of films, many of which have been supported by CAAM and presented at CAAMFest. Off the Menu, an exploration of Asian American and Pacific Islander food in Texas, Wisconsin, Hawaii, and New York was CAAMFest Opening Night presentation in 2015. K-Town ’92 deconstructed traditional film form, as an interactive web documentary featuring the lesser-known stories of Asians and Latinos during the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles following the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Lee’s history with CAAM goes back to the 1990s, when her documentary Camp Arirang was screened at the festival, then known as the San Francisco International Asian Film Festival (SFIAAFF). CAAM founder Loni Ding was one of her earliest mentors and supporters. In the late 1990s, Lee was living in New York, working as a television production assistant and learning about film through Third World Newsreel, when her instructor JT Takagi told her about an opportunity to field produce some shoots in New York Chinatown for the Ancestors in the Americas series. Later, Ding offered her a job at CAAM (at the time the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, or NAATA) in San Francisco.
“It was amazing, because she gave me a lot of autonomy,” says Lee. “I wasn’t there just to be a pair of hands or a runner. She really valued ‘what does this young person think about this Asian American history?’”
Loni Ding passed away in 2010, but her legacy continues to influence Lee to this day. For example, Lee produced two episodes of the groundbreaking Asian Americans documentary series which aired on PBS in May. In one segment, she used archival footage of Earnest and Kay Uno talking about the two Japanese American brothers who found themselves on opposing sides of World War II. Only afterwards, did Lee realize that those interviews were originally shot by her mentor 30 years ago. “She was asking these questions while they were alive, and they were vital. It was such a gift,” reflects Lee.
Throughout her career, Lee has gravitated toward strong, activist women. “There are a lot of similarities with Loni and Grace Lee Boggs, that similar interest in the next generation,” Lee says of her foremothers. Now, she is one of the veterans that emerging filmmakers look to for advice, and she advocates for diversity in the documentary industry. Lee frequently shares her knowledge during CAAM’s Filmmaker Summits. In 2015, Lee joined with filmmaker S. Leo Chiang to create the Asian American Documentary Network (A-Doc) to support other Asian American documentary filmmakers. Like Loni Ding and Grace Lee Boggs before her, she shares the passion for training up future leaders. “I guess I have that too,” Lee reflects. “I have to, because it can’t just end with me. It’s the whole process of evolving the community and evolving storytelling.”
Watch And She Could Be Next, free through POV through the November 3 election.