Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, a new film by Shola Lynch, in which Angela Davis, 68, speaks openly for the first time in forty years about the tumultuous events of her twenties, debuted at this week’s Toronto International Film Festival. Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, who introduced the doc at the festival, just announced that their Overbrook Entertainment has partnered with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation as executive producers of the documentary about the scholar who came to embody Black power and Black radical feminism.
It’s a wonder that Davis’ trial hasn’t been brought to the big screen before. Two months after the 26-year old was fired from her assistant professorship at UCLA because of her affiliation with the Communist Party and her vocal support for three California inmates known as "the Soledad Brothers," the State accused her of being involved in a plot to help famed Soledad Brother George Jackson, a Black Panther and communist intellectual break out of San Quentin prison.
On August 7, 1970, George Jackson's brother and Angela’s personal bodyguard, 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson initiated the kidnapping of a superior court judge, assistant district attorney and three jurors in open court in San Rafael, California. He demanded the release of George and the other Soledad Brothers. Jonathan provided arms to three convicts, who assisted him in the takeover. The resulting shootout left Jonathan, two of his accomplices and the judge dead, and the assistant district attorney badly wounded. Angela Davis had purchased guns used in the shooting. When she hears she is wanted by police, she leaves the state traveling in wigs to disguise her iconic afro. She goes from Los Angeles to Chicago to Miami –––the FBI finally tracked down and arrested her on October 13, 1970 at a Howard Johnson's in New York City.
Free Angela is Shola Lynch’s second film. She won a Peabody Award in 2006 for her documentary Chisholm '72: Unbought And Unbossed, which chronicled Shirley Chisholm's historic 1972 run for the White House. EBONY spoke with Lynch about her newest project.
EBONY: There’s something about Angela Davis that makes her able to connect with people. She’s so educated. She’s so articulate. Do you think her extensive education played a big part in the drama of her criminal trial in 1971, which is portrayed in your film?
LYNCH: I don’t think it was just her education…What does somebody do when faced with enormous pressure from power? How do you respond to that? And her choices are clear and they’re documented. And I think what’s difficult about her is she doesn’t apologize for her choices. And she appears to be so strong. And in 1970, there just were not that many women, let alone women of color, who projected that persona in the world.
Think about it. When we turned on the television what were we looking at? When we looked in the magazines, what were we looking at? The power of the Panthers was this visual show of strength and for women, Angela was that in so many ways.
EBONY: Vernon Reid wrote an original score for the film?
LYNCH: Yes! I kept hearing guitars, so I asked Vernon Reid. And it was an eye-opening experience working with him. Because I expected hard, wailing music. And he did some of that, but he has a sensitive side and he created just a beautiful theme for her.
EBONY: What did you learn from making this film?
LYNCH: One thing that was exciting for me as a director was this is the first time that I actually shot re-creations. In a way, it’s almost like I shot two different films. I shot straight ahead documentary and did the archival research with our team. And then there were moments where there’s no film and no footage and so based on facts, I used my imagination to create the images I would have loved to have had available to me. Bradford Young is the cinematographer and Eisa Davis, who is Angela’s niece, played Angela. And so it really stretched me as a director and I loved it. I loved having so much control. [Laughs]. And I think it adds to the emotional depth of the film.
EBONY: I read that Angela saw the film in Oakland, that you flew out and screened it for her. Did she tell you what she thought?
LYNCH: [Laughs] She didn’t see the final film. She saw a rough cut of the film. It wasn’t finished and it was long.
From the first image her foot started a little bit of a nervous wag. She sat forward several times. She teared up once or twice. Her first comment when the film was over was: ‘That made me uncomfortable.’ Which for me as a filmmaker and a journalist, is a compliment. It clearly is not the story she would tell. She would tell a strictly political, deeply kind of philosophical piece. And that’s part of it, but for me, the interesting question is: Who is the person behind the iconography? How is she real? I wanted to get a sense of her as a person.