Grace Lee and James Boggs Embodied Black-Asian Solidarity
In this time of anti-Asian hate, we need look to the couple who fought for civil rights in Detroit
By Alice Jennings and Scott Kurashige
In the 2016 Netflix movie Barry, viewers relive Barack Obama’s personal and political coming of age during his years as a college student at Columbia University. A Black man in a sea of whiteness on the elite campus, Barry (played by Devon Terrell) dates a white woman, Charlotte (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), and plays pick-up basketball in nearby Harlem.
With young Obama feeling stuck in the crack between these worlds, the dramatized narrative concludes with Barry’s intriguing revelation. Charlotte’s mother introduces him to a “brilliant” Black and Asian American activist couple named James and Grace Lee, who reassure him that his mixed-race background and international upbringing represent the future of the United States. The scene ends with James and Grace Lee Boggs metaphorically handing the baton of movement activism and struggle to the man who would become the first Black president.
This fictional account is one of the rare examples, albeit a cameo, of a Black-Asian relationship in film. It was inspired by the real-life works of James and Grace Lee Boggs, who were nationally renowned authors and human rights activists who worked to build multiracial and intergenerational movements for social transformation. This is the kind of inspiration we desperately need to reshape Hollywood, our schools, and our political system.
Interracial relationships depicted on-screen almost always involve a white-nonwhite coupling. With stories of so-called Black-Asian conflict saturating the news, as they did during the 1992 Los Angeles uprising and now in response to viral videos of anti-Asian violence, the dearth of holistic Black-Asian representation becomes even more pronounced. Taken out of context, these accounts of a seeming intractable clash of cultures become a convenient distraction from the focus on systemic white supremacy brought about by the brutalization of Rodney King and the killings of George Floyd and the Atlanta spa victims.