The Making of a Revolutionary: 'Free Angela and All Poltical Prisoners'
I was a bored suburban girl suddenly diverted by a hostage situation that erupted in our local Marin County, California, Courthouse. On August 7, 1970, 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson interrupted the trial of a San Quentin inmate by distributing guns among the defendants and holding the judge, a prosecutor and three jurors hostage. As the kidnappers drove their captives off in a van, they exchanged fire with police. Jackson and his two comrades were killed, as was the judge. The aborted plan was apparently to use the hostages to take over a radio station and demand the release of the Soledad Brothers, one of whom was Jonathan's older brother George Jackson, a Black Panther and prison activist. George's lover, and the woman in whose name the guns were registered, was Angela Davis.
It wasn't just the "Free Angela" graffiti that started showing up all around Marin County that intrigued me. I was electrified by the photos of Davis herself, a strikingly attractive woman of 26 with a formidable Afro. I didn't know that she had been a philosophy professor at UCLA, recently fired on the grounds of being a Communist and blacklisted by then-Governor Ronald Reagan from teaching at any California university. Shortly after the courthouse shootings, Davis was arrested for murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, charges all eligible for the death penalty. Finding herself on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, she went underground for nearly three months. Her capture and subsequent trial was a flashpoint for most of the issues of the '60s: racism, activism, freedom of speech, feminism.
All this is the matter of Shola Lynch's new documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, which brings back a lot of memories but, more importantly, things I'd never known about Davis' life and explosion into notoriety.
The film opens with an introductory montage lashed together by drummer Max Roach's 1960 recording "Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace," featuring a hair-raising performance of keening and shrieks by Abbey Lincoln. It's a perfect beginning to an account of an extraordinary life and era.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners is an account of the making of a revolutionary, not a tragic figure or a good girl gone wrong. As her sister and friend say in their interviews in the film, Davis was putting her education into practice and searching for her raison d'être. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and left for Brandeis University just as the civil rights battles were heating up in that Southern city. She was drawn to the work of German philosopher and political theorist Herbert Marcuse, who taught at Brandeis, and she later pursued graduate work in philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, where she learned about the formation of the Black Panther Party back in the States. She decided to return to the US and University of California, San Diego, where Marcuse was now teaching. She earned her masters there, and her doctorate at Humboldt University in East Berlin. She was affiliated with the Panthers and the Che-Lumumba Club (the first all-black Communist organization) when she was invited to teach philosophy at UCLA.
Her first lecture, on slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass, drew 2,000 students and made her a campus superstar. To paraphrase Davis' longtime associate Bettina Aptheker, her eventual firing was the result of Governor Reagan's determination to repress radical political movements—the anti-war demonstrators, Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. Davis was a symbol of all those movements at once. Shocked by death threats and fearing that the police or the FBI would kill her, Davis bought her first gun.
When Davis was tried for involvement in the Marin courthouse shootings, prosecutor Albert Harris initially used her political affiliations to depict her as a dangerous terrorist. But he changed his tactics midstream by using the letters she had written to her incarcerated lover George Jackson, who was later killed trying to escape San Quentin while Davis was awaiting trial. "They were very passionate, emotional letters," Davis says in the film. "Harris wanted to use these as primary evidence of my guilt: an argument that I had uncontrollable passion as a woman!" Spectators were astonished when she spoke at her trial, scoffing at this banshee-in-love motive as "utterly fantastic, utterly absurd, clear evidence of male chauvinism." They were not prepared for her dead-on feminist critique.
One revelation about the case and the trial that emerges in the film was how fortunate Davis was. First, her defense—composed, at her insistence, of black lawyers—had better litigators than the prosecution. Second, after 16 months of mostly solitary confinement, she was released on bail and was able to walk into her trial as a free woman, her innocence presumed. Third, her friends and family generated enormous support for her, including bail offers from Aretha Franklin and testimony from major French thinkers. The sight of her dignified, college-educated parents and spirited siblings speaking on her behalf, as well as their presence at her trial, caused the head juror to reconsider her early impressions of Davis as a guilty defendant.
But luck was not all that finally got her acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury. Justice ultimately, and remarkably, prevailed in her case. It was a combination of timing and good lawyering, as well as Davis's unmistakable rectitude as a human being, that won her freedom and a place in American history. In the public eye she was forced to wrestle with the big question facing anyone with a social conscience. "When do we move from self-defense to becoming offensive? How far do you take your activism? Angela was in the middle of all this," says Shola Lynch.
Lynch's 2004 documentary, Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed, was also about a female African-American political trailblazer: New York-based Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president in 1972. Lynch had Davis watch that film, which, in turn, convinced Davis to grant Lynch consent to make a film about her. "Angela's response to that piece—‘I thought I knew that story'—made me realize that there's so much about her own story that Angela couldn't know," says Lynch. Once she gave her consent, Davis "didn't help me or get in my way either. Her personality is antithetical to the way things are promoted today. She would prefer not to talk about herself, but to talk about other people, the politics."
This reserve on Davis' part makes the film's title, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, "organic to this story." As Bettina Aptheker says, Angela insisted that support for her should be for all political prisoners, not just for herself. Acknowledging that the full title might make marketers balk, Lynch says, "I was just waiting for some distributor to tell me to remove that part, but it never happened."
Still, the film's gaze is firmly on Davis herself and explores the complex woman inside the icon. In a lighter moment we get glimpses of some photos taken of her while in hiding, sultry and full of attitude. "Both Shirley Chisholm and Angela Davis made me uncomfortable," Lynch admits. "Women like them are not neat-their complicatedness makes us uncomfortable. Angela Davis is held up as iconic, but nobody could tell me more. What is her power? This film fills in the blanks."
Davis told Lynch that "if she had not taken the job at UCLA, she could have been a shy, quiet professor doing her thing. What happened gave her a political celebrity and notoriety that she could leverage for her political issues. This story is the becoming of Angela Davis. She's young, figuring it out—and the wheels are turning."
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners will be released in theaters April 5 through Codeblack Films, a division of Lionsgate.
Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.