America ReFramed

The Grace Lee Project

Season 04  Episode 14

Growing up in Missouri, award-­winning Korean American filmmaker Grace Lee was the only “Grace Lee” she knew. Upon moving to New York and then California, she discovered quite the opposite.

In her quest to uncover how the Western name “Grace” became ubiquitous among Asian Americans, the filmmaker seeks out and speaks with many subjects named Grace Lee, soon learning the name’s Hollywood origins, as well as its Christian and missionary roots. Through an array of first-person interviews, she finds that the name carries with it a stereotype of the model minority — or rather a “quiet, well-­behaved overachiever.” While a wide range of women, including a Hawai’i based television anchor, could fit a certain image of the name, others would break that mold.

Over the course of filming, the ad hoc investigation unfolds into a more profound and nuanced exploration of Asian American female identity. Initially lured by a perceived social uniformity, the filmmaker’s unscientific study takes a turn in search of outliers. She pursues a rebel Grace Lee who tried to burn down her high school, a resilient single mother who sacrifices her comfort to care for another family’s well-being, and a Silicon Valley teenager who spends evenings doing homework, playing piano, and painting graphic pictures of death and destruction. The city of Detroit provides her with the opportunity to meet the legendary activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, a major figure in the Civil Rights, Black Power, Labor, Environmental Justice and Feminist movements. Eventually, filmmaker Grace Lee would turn their encounter into the documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.

By listening to the personal accounts and journeys of diverse women carrying the Grace Lee name, the filmmaker moves beyond Western stereotypes and Asian cultural aspirations. Embracing shared traits and highlighting contradictions, the filmmaker focuses on the individuality and humanity of all who share her name.