Free Angela Davis

images-1Shola Lynch’s new documentary Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners was premiered at the IFC Center in Manhattan tonight.

Ms. Lynch answered questions after the showing and put her finger on what I found unsettling about her approach. She said that when they were making the movie they knew there were two audiences: those who lived at the time and were caught up in the events and believed that “the revolution was just around the corner” and those who “like us” think of that as the “butt of a joke.” On saying it, Ms. Lynch immediately knew she had let her candor (or perhaps silliness, she has the habit of giggling uncontrollably) reveal her own distance from the subject (and a large chunk of her intended audience). A distance that comes through in many ways.

Angela Davis was a serious, but young, African-American philosopher who returned from her studies in Germany to Southern California because she believed that it was her responsibility to become involved in the emerging Black Power movement of the late 60s. She was hired as a professor of philosophy at UCLA, specifically, she says, to teach Marxism. She herself had minor encounters with the Black Panthers, who she felt marginalized women and so became a member of the Che Lumumba Club, a small conscious-raising group that emphasized the role of African-American women in the movement. The club was avowedly communist, which would be the beginning of her problems. Ronald Reagan was the governor of California at the time and ex officio a regent of UCLA. Reagan had long since given himself over to the knee-jerk anti-communist right-wing of the time, having been “converted” through his dealings with J. Edgar Hoover’s ever-present FBI. And so through the agitation (ironically enough) of the Republicans, Davis was fired from her job.

With the notoriety of the firing (not every radical has the governor, and rising star of a major political party, make the case to have you fired) she was now in demand as a speaker at rallies, demonstrations, picket lines and the like. She also became the target of virulent hate mail, and, as a result, she bought firearms to protect herself. This is not the place to trace the details of the case, so I will cut to the chase, as they say, and note that the guns were used by a group of prisoners (and the brother of an inmate that Davis had grown to know through the radical pieces he wrote from prison) who kidnapped a judge and court personnel and in the ensuing gun-fight killed several of them, dying themselves.

Davis, who understood she was implicated, fled. This led to a nationwide hunt by the FBI. (She was named one of the 10 most wanted.) She was returned to California for trial and brutally treated (as you would expect). But through the organization of intensely loyal friends, a world-wide movement emerged demanding that Davis be freed. She would always add to this demand “and all political prisoners.” What created this loyalty was a combination of Davis’s earnestness, her charisma and her unwavering courage. It did not hurt that some of the most cartoonish of all Republican reactionaries were her persecutors. They were cartoonish, but the backlash they led was deadly serious.

Angela Davis on March 4, 2011 speaking on behalf of community organizing efforts against the Oakland gang injunctions. This is the Angela Davis who continues the fight; not the one in the movie.

Angela Davis on March 4, 2011 speaking on behalf of community organizing efforts against the Oakland gang injunctions. This is the Angela Davis who continues the fight; not the one in the movie.

Angela Davis’s story could have been told any number of ways, but Ms. Lynch chose to tell the story of the trial as one would normally see it done on television: with Reagan, Nixon, Agnew and the prosecution as black-and-white villains and Davis and her defense team as scrappy underdogs, fighting for the right. Lynch in fact said after the showing that the movie was a “political crime genre with a love story in the middle.” And as such, it is well done, particularly, I suppose, if you are a member of Ms. Lynch’s generation who views the age of Nixon as ancient history. I personally believe that the love story element was somewhat overdone, but I am trying here not to criticize the movie for failing to do it the way I would have done it, had I all the connections Ms. Lynch does.

The great strength of the movie (for me) was the narrative provided by the interview responses of Angela Davis. You can see, even now, why Davis would engender such loyalty. Especially with the government (both federal and state) over-playing its hand (the prosecutor charged three capital crimes, on each of which he asked for the death penalty), Davis exudes solemnity and serious-mindedness. It says volumes that when Davis after many months was permitted to post bail, the security was provided by a small white farmer, who pledged his dairy farm as collateral. He of course himself then became subject of hate mail and death threats.

Davis’s three trial counsel as well as reporters who covered the events tell the story of the trial, interspersed with news reel clips. In listening to the audio I came close to believing that Lynch had it right: with newscasters like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, this had to be ancient history. The trial comes to an end with the all white jury acquitting Davis on all accounts much like a television courtroom drama would come to an end. Little explanation is attempted about how this miraculous outcome was achieved, except, we are led to believe, through the courtroom tactics of the lawyers. Before the credits roll Richard Nixon and Rose Mary Woods are heard discussing how unbelievable the result was.

So what have we watched for the previous 100 minutes? Clearly a remarkable person. But we know nothing about Angela Davis as a result. We’re told that she continued on with her work, but what is that work? Does it have anything to do with us now? We get not a clue from the movie. What we get is a reverential portrait of Angela Davis, conceived from afar by someone with a very indistinct concept of what the issues were. Even the attempts of “authenticity” were somewhat off. The first song we hear is from the famous jazz anthem We Insist! by Max Roach. And while Abbie Lincoln’s angry yet plaintiff vocal indeed personifies the civil rights struggle, it was the struggle of the decade before (We Insist! was released in 1960) not the era of 1970 when hope and innocence was replaced by grim determination and right-wing backlash. There was an entire world of difference (not the least of which was 1968) that divided them.

Perhaps it is not possible for a young director (or any director) to now make a movie about those distant days. Ms. Lynch was clearly much more comfortable talking about the coups she was able to land in financing and other help. And it’s probable that anyone who actually had a connection or even a contemporary consciousness of the events involved could not land the money and  contemporary street cred of Will Smith (executive producer) and Jay-Z (another executive producer). It’s also probably true that it took someone with Shola Lynch’s young, apolitical perkiness to get a distribution deal with Lionsgate. (The movie will be screened, it was announced today, in AMC theaters in 9 cities this Friday, April 5.) And I urge you to see it. You will take away something, although probably not what Angela Davis would want you to. That’s likely why, as Ms. Lynch revealed, when she told Ms. Davis that it was “her film,” Angela Davis said, no “It’s your film.”

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  1. I can’t wait to see the movie when it comes out on DVD!

    • It is worth seeing. For my part, however, I would rather have spent 90 minutes listening to Angela Davis discuss the ideas in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? But I’m an old leftist crank.

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