Angela Davis documentary revisits a turbulent era

Documentarian Shola Lynch first encountered controversial political activist and professor Angela Davis over 20 years ago while still a student at the University of Texas in Austin.

Davis delivered a speech that “was all about justice and race, fighting the good fight,” recalled Lynch, now 44, on the phone from her home in New York. “In college, that is what we were all about. That was the time we were trying to figure it out. What did equality mean? What does it mean to be black? All of this stuff was coming up around race and gender.”

After cutting her filmmaking teeth working with Ken Burns on several documentaries including his “Jazz” series, Lynch turned her lens on issues of race and gender in her the Peabody Award-winning 2006 PBS documentary “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed,” about Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1972.

ARCHIVES: Los Angeles Times stories about Angela Davis in 1969 and 1970

For her new documentary, “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners,” Lynch revisits those issues and themes, this time centering her examination on Davis, who like Chisholm was making headlines in that era, although for some very different reasons.


“I thought I knew who Angela Davis was,” said Lynch. “But when I started to revisit her story, I said this is a political crime thriller with a love story in the middle of it. It needs to be told.”

The film, which combines new interviews with Davis (now 69), her family, friends, legal team and others with historical footage and photographs, opens in nine cities Friday including Los Angeles, New York, Oakland and Atlanta. Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Jay-Z are among the executive producers.

Davis was just in her 20s when she was catapulted into the national consciousness. A lecturer on philosophy at UCLA and an avowed Communist, David protested with the Black Panthers and was a spokesperson for the prison reform movement, taking up the cause of incarcerated Black Panther George Jackson, who was one of three unrelated men known as the Soledad Brothers charged with killing a white prison guard.

In 1969, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan asked the UC Board of Regents to fire Davis because of her political affiliations. A judge later reinstated her. But the board fired her for good in 1970, citing her “inflammatory language” in four different speeches.

Lynch’s documentary revolves around Davis’ entanglement in the kidnapping and murder of a judge by Jackson’s teenage brother, Jonathan, in a daylight shootout in 1970 outside the Marin County courthouse.

Davis, who had purchased the firearms used in the shootout, claimed she was unaware of any plot to attack the courthouse. Prosecutors focused less on Davis’ politics and instead emphasized intimate letters she had written to George Jackson, alleging that she was motivated to help in the attack because she was in love with him.

ARCHIVES: Los Angeles Times stories about Angela Davis in 1969 and 1970

Davis went on the lam and was named to the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Eschewing her trademark Afro hairstyle, she managed to elude capture for several months. She was eventually arrested in New York and tried on the charges of conspiracy, kidnapping and murder. She was acquitted in a San Jose courtroom in 1972.

Lynch discovered that Davis was still a polarizing figure.

“I thought because her image is well known, that it would be easier to raise money for Angela Davis than it was for the Chisholm film,” she said. “Boy, I was wrong.”

Lynch realized after the film was nearly done that the licensing fees for the archival footage and pictures were three times higher than what she had budgeted. Sidra Smith, one of the film’s producers, showed the film to Pinkett Smith, who together with her husband and Jay-Z came on board and gave her the money to finish the film. (Sidra Smith is not related to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.)

“I think films like this about strong women and strong women of color are only made if women stand up and make it happen,” Lynch said.

Davis, who eventually returned to teaching, at UC Santa Cruz, is now retired but remains an activist. She is the founder of Critical Resistance, which “seeks to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.”

So it took many emails, conversations and a screening of the Chisholm documentary to convince Davis to participate.

“She lives in the present, she doesn’t live in the past,” said Lynch. “I was asking her to go back 40 years and revisit a time that is very painful and very difficult and fraught with intense emotions.”


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