Activist Angela Davis attends Black Girls Rock! 2011 at the Paradise Theater on October 15, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by John W. Ferguson/Getty Images)
by Courtney Garcia
Many words describe Angela Davis – radical, intellectual, Communist, feminist, rebel, scholar, revolutionary– but the story of her life can be defined by one: justice.
As a civil rights activist and prison abolitionist, Davis has spent decades fighting for a fair society, and in the process, circumventing the systematic prejudices she so fervently denounces. In the new documentaryFree Angela and All Political Prisoners, filmmaker Shola Lynch explores the moment 41 years ago that Davis became an international political icon, a woman both exalted and vilified as she fought for the right to assert her beliefs, her speech and consequently her liberty.
“In the landscape of that period, when you think about political figures, when you think about mass media figures, there are very few examples, if any, of strong women,” Lynch tells theGrio. “Let alone strong black women.”
The movie centers on Davis’ implication in a courthouse murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy effort on August 7, 1970 in Marin County, California, the trial that ensued thereafter and Davis’ eventual acquittal. Though only 26 years old at the time, it was the culmination of a riotous period in Davis’ life, where she had already been labeled a terrorist by the government, and fired from her job as a professor at UCLA.
“Angela Davis is associated with [the Black Panthers] and she stands up for her rights and her beliefs,” Lynch explains. “It starts with UCLA and standing up for her job. It went against the school policy and the law, I’m pretty sure, for the school to try and fire her for being a Communist…That’s what democracy is all about, that we have freedom of speech, and academic freedom, within the context of the university, to discuss ideas that may or may not be popular. So, the idea that she was standing up for her rights unequivocally is very attractive.”
After receiving death threats for her socialist ties, Davis was linked to George Jackson, a Panther and member of the Soledad Brothers trio, when a gun she’d purchased for defense was used during his courthouse ambush. Several people were killed, and Davis was indicted for her connection to the crime. She went into hiding following the incident, becoming the third woman ever to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, and was eventually captured and detained without bail as she went on trial.
Lynch spent eight years researching Davis’ story and bringing the film project to fruition. It serves as a recounting of a significant moment in Davis’ life that would influence her future work, and inspire a faction of constituents backing her cause.
“When I started [making the film], it was post 9-11, and there was all this talk about what was a terrorist, and who was a terrorist,” the filmmakers recalls. “What attracted me about this story was that this was a way of discussing it without having the raw emotion of discussing 9-11…It also resonates in the present with prisoners’ rights…In the 70’s, [Davis] was starting to articulate a prisoners’ rights kind of activism that was very new at the time. Talking about prisoners – young men, primarily black and Latino – that had been caught up in petty crimes and now been in prison for extended periods of time.”
“She wanted to call them political prisoners,” Lynch continues. “There were a lot of people on the political side of protesting, and revolution and anti-war that had real discomfort with that because it’s like, ‘Well these people are criminals.’ And so the whole George Jackson story really relates to the situation with prisoners’ rights today, and the increasing prisoner industrial complex.”
As the film shows, Davis became aware of what she felt were discriminatory and inhumane practices infiltrating the criminal justice system during her own detainment. These experiences would provide a framework for her later theories on abolition democracy, camouflaged racism, penal servitude and the extension of slavery through incarceration.
Furthermore, it was this period in Davis’ life that would inspire her organization, Critical Resistance, a crusade to replace prisons with social institutions that remedy conditions dooming many men and women to a life behind bars.
“Her relationship with George Jackson and the Soledad brothers is what started it, and then her own incarceration – those two experiences are pivotal to the direction that her life takes after that,” Lynch observes. “She’s about justice issues, and for her they’re all intertwined. You can’t talk about one justice issue without another… Free Angela is a way to narrow that, and to give Angela a fair trial. That really was the point of the movement.”
The film pulls together images, letters and video clips from Davis’ supporters around the world at the time of her trial, all of whom rallied together for her liberation. Those advocates included Nina Simone, who visited Davis in prison; Aretha Franklin, who offered to pay her bond; John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who wrote a song in her honor; and the countless men, women and children of all ages and races who organized a movement demanding her release. Lynch additionally interviews Davis and her family, her lawyers and old friends, as well as those countering her struggle to fill in details of the historical outline.
Not surprisingly, Davis’ involvement took convincing.
“Her attitude was skeptical,” Lynch remembers. “She doesn’t seem like the kind of person that revisits the past. She’s not living in the past, believe it or not. People have ideas of her from the past, but she lives in the present. She’s a retired professor now; she’s an activist speaking all over the world about, ironically, the same kinds of issues that ‘got her in trouble’ in the 70’s. So, it just took a moment to get her attention.”
Lynch also points to the fact that, from Davis’ point of view, the story was limited. Thus, the documentary was a way for the activist to revisit her narrative from several vantages.
Lynch adds, “There was all this stuff going on around her, whether it’s the government, whether it’s her old lawyers, whether it’s the protests and the Free Angela movement – she never experienced it. She was the beneficiary.”
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012 to critical praise, and opens at select theaters in the U.S. on April 5. It was executive-produced by Overbrook Entertainment partners Will Smith, James Lassiter, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Roc Nation, and is being distributed by Codeblack Films and Lionsgate. In addition to its focus on Davis’ exoneration, the production also touches on issues of American civil liberties, gun violence, and the dynamism of a cause célèbre. Though decades past, many of the concerns addressed in the movie still resonate in today’s sociopolitical climate, particularly relating to the national debate on gun control.
“What I couldn’t have anticipated is the amount of gun violence that’s happened in the last few years with lone gun people walking into certain situations, either for political reasons or personal reasons, and initiating a similar kind of gun battle or massacre that happened on August 7,” Lynch admits. “I don’t think there’s any correlation in the sense that this was such a political period…People were motivated by the idea that the revolution was right around the corner, and so it’s not so individualistic. It’s not about crazy, deranged people, but there is a question of guns and how to control them, and how law enforcement responds.”
Nevertheless, the movie, as Lynch notes, is not about the Second Amendment, but primarily the First, and Davis’ momentous, ongoing journey in defending it.
“She doesn’t hesitate,” Lynch remarks. “Just seeing her set that example, seeing her make those choices – to stand up – they are really powerful.”