Film Explores Why Angela Davis Matters

The activist helps us remember that blacks are part of American history's fabric, says the director.

Angela Davis (Getty Images); Shola Lynch (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Angela Davis (Getty Images); Shola Lynch (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

(The Root) — In 1972, Angela Davis’ struggle as a political prisoner became an example of the black power movement, the Black Panthers and the political unrest of the time. Even her Afro became a symbol of black people’s work against oppression in America. Moreover, her trial and acquittal of suspected involvement in the Soledad brothers’ August 1970 abduction and murder of Judge Harold Haley in Marin County, Calif., showed how one person can become a lightning rod for an entire country’s struggle with civil rights.

A documentary delving into Davis’ story, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, recently opened in select theaters nationwide. In depicting the now-retired professor’s life as a fugitive on the F.B.I.’s “Most Wanted” list and the subsequent trial and hard-fought freedom that followed, director Shola Lynch told The Root she wanted her film to answer the question: Who is Angela Davis, outside of her famous hair and photos of her with one fist in the air?

Lynch, who also helmed Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, spoke to The Root about recruiting Davis to discuss the most difficult time in her life, the love story between Davis and Panther George Jackson and why one woman’s triumph means so much for black history.

The Root: How did you convince Angela Davis to open up for Free Angela and All Political Prisoners?

Shola Lynch: It took a long time; talking about herself is not where she feels most comfortable. She’s way more comfortable talking politics and living in the present, and I wanted to take her back 40 years to talk about stuff that got her into trouble — chased by the government in a fight for her life. She was reluctant. But if you talk to any person that knows just the minimum about black history, they’ll know Angela Davis’ name. I thought those people would be a great audience, because you know the image and that she’s powerful, but why? What is her story, and who is she as a person, because as women of color, particularly in history, we’re not often given the agency that we deserve.

TR: In the film, you cover when Davis’ love letters to another prisoner, George Jackson, were revealed and exploited during her trial, to her great embarrassment. What role did they play in Davis’ case?

SL: They were so beautiful, and you know prisoners can throw down in print. People were focused on the love story between Angela and George Jackson in a completely different way, but it is a major part of telling this political crime drama. The prosecution made it the motive for the alleged crime, [saying Angela orchestrated] the kidnapping of the judge, a subsequent murder and conspiracy charges [because she was in love with Jackson]. That might seem ridiculous, but it was the 1970s; women couldn’t get credit cards in their own name without a co-sign from their husband or father.

TR: Angela became a lightning rod for race, governmental pressure and the temperature of America at the time. How do you think political activism has changed since the 1970s?