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Review: 'Free Angela and All Political Prisoners' studies a radical

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Documentarian Shola Lynch, who previously profiled Shirley Chisholm's groundbreaking run for president, turns her lens on another significant African American female figure from the early '70s in "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners." Applying her "historical vérité" style to one of the most publicized trials in one of the most combative and hopeful periods in U.S. (and California) annals, she has assembled a detailed oral history. At its center is a new and lengthy interview with Angela Davis.

"Free Angela," though, does not tell Davis' story — as an intellectual, radical and educator — in full onscreen. Though the film provides basic background info, its focus is her 1972 trial in San Jose. After guns linked to Davis were used in an attack on a Marin County courthouse that turned deadly, the UCLA philosophy instructor wound up on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Eventually facing charges of kidnapping, murder and conspiracy, she became an international symbol of the struggle for justice, hailed abroad as an American hero. Lynch offers vivid evidence of Davis' stature at the time, but there's no attempt to examine her work in the 40 years since her acquittal, as an activist against racism, sexism and, especially, the U.S. prison system.

Lynch builds her chronicle from firsthand accounts by Davis, her sister, friends and defense attorneys, as well as an FBI agent and journalists. Along with a vast array of (mostly unlabeled) clips, stills, courtroom sketches and headlines, the film judiciously deploys dialogue-free reenactments, which inject visual poetry into an otherwise straightforward telling.

Unlike "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975," a doc that drew a visceral punch from freshly unearthed archival material — including an electrifying prison interview with Davis — Lynch's film is a work of steady chronological progression. Without straining for big-picture significance, it provides a composed look into the revolutionary spirit.

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"Free Angela and All Political Prisoners." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. At AMC Universal Citywalk Stadium 19, Universal City; AMC Ontario Mills 30, Ontario.

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