Director Shola Lynch has a concise way to sum up her findings from the eight years that went into making Free Angela & All Political Prisoners. While researching her documentary about the trial of Angela Davis—the intellectual and activist who was implicated in the kidnapping and murder of a U.S. judge in 1970—Lynch sifted through stacks of official documentation and news coverage from the time.
“If you took all the articles about [Davis] being on the FBI’s most wanted list and the chase and about the charges of conspiracy and murder, it’s a huge stack of articles,” Lynch tells TakePart. “If you take all the articles [about] the trial and then of course, the acquittal, it’s a very small stack. So of course, what do we remember?”
Lynch hopes that Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, which comes out in select AMC Theaters April 5, 2013, will even out those falsely weighted memories. The filmmaker’s 2004 spotlight on the groundbreaking yet underreported presidential campaign of African-American congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, focused on a crucial female figure in the civil rights movement whose efforts have been distorted or disregarded by history.
Chisholm ’72 went a long way toward restoring Congresswoman Chisholm’s presidential bid it to its proper context. Free Angela & All Political Prisoners is poised to do the same for the legacy of Angela Davis.
In putting together the history of Davis’s persecution, Lynch had her work cut out for her. For one thing, the American criminal justice system would’ve preferred to leave a disgraceful episode and a failed prosecution buried in the past, and Davis herself was less than eager to revisit the trials.
Acquitted after 18 months of incarceration, Davis’s activism hasn’t flagged in the ensuing years. From a significantly reduced public profile, she has ardently lobbied for prison and education reform and energized the organization she helped create in the wake of becoming a worldwide cause célèbre during her time in prison.
“I struggled with do I want to be pigeonholed? Do I want to just tell stories about black women? Do I want to just tell stories about women?”
“I’ve had people say, ‘Did you have to go to Cuba to interview her?,’ ” Lynch laughs now. “I’m like, ‘No, she was acquitted. She’s been a professor in the U.C. system almost ever since.’ ”
Lynch ultimately convinced Davis to take part in Free Angela by showing the U.C. professor Chisholm.
Free Angela doesn’t dwell much on Davis’s life outside of when a warrant is issued for her arrest and the legal process takes its course. Instead, Lynch gathers together witnesses and participants who were intimately involved in the case. The film exposes a system that was abused to make an example of an openly Communist Black Panther sympathizer. Though exhibiting the very principles America’s Bill of Rights and justice system were designed to protect, Davis, who was incarcerated in solitary confinement, could not completely know the full extent to which her persecution violated those principles.
Although Lynch has provided an invaluable service in uncovering such details, she initially hesitated. After previously making Chisholm, the director was leery of being painted in broad strokes as a filmmaker, similar to how Davis was defined and portrayed during the ’70s.
“I struggled with do I want to be pigeonholed? Do I want to just tell stories about black women? Do I want to just tell stories about women?” says Lynch, who was an occasional presence on Sesame Street and a celebrated track star in college before becoming a filmmaker. “The story itself compelled me, and then I get to tell the story the way I want to and perhaps have our society and culture revisit this person and remember them in a fuller way; so that’s not a bad thing.”
Others clearly feel the same way. In advance of Free Angela & All Political Prisoners’ premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, Jada Pinkett Smith signed on as an executive producer of the film, bringing along her husband, Will, and Jay Z to present the film. The presence of these three hugely popular African-American artists shows that progress as championed by the film’s main subject is ready for a far wider audience.
“Hollywood complains about the fact that there aren’t stories by women directors and with great women,” says Lynch. “So I think the women in Hollywood need to help change that. That’s how it’s going to change.”
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