(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?
SL: What I love about the 1970s is that politics was part of everyday life. Whether you were a feminist or a New Left or a Black Panther, your charge was to change the world. We don't have that kind of movement anymore. Harry Belafonte talked about it at the NAACP Awards, saying there's less obligation to make the world a better place now.
TR: In terms of race relations, what changes have you seen through the lens of this documentary?
SL: Talking to Angela Davis or anybody who grew up under heinous racial segregation, their parents taught them who they were, their history and their worth. With integration, parents thought everybody was in the best school possible, but black kids weren't learning about blackness. Who wants to be a slave and then beaten? And in the general narrative of American history, things happen to blacks, and we take it, but that's not the true story or what young black people need to hear about themselves.
We're part of the fabric of American history. We are survivors, and characters like Angela Davis help us remember that. Whether you agree with her or not, she stands up on principle, and her story has been consistent for 40 years. Usually once you start digging as a documentarian, you find some subject's stories are a little raggedy.
TR: Did anything end up on the cutting-room floor?
SL: There was an informant that said the government knew about what was going to happen on Aug. 7 and let it happen. I can't prove that, though I did enough research to know that the story I tell is true. I went into the film thinking I'd be able to find the smoking gun on how she got set up or whether she did mastermind it, but I didn't.
TR: Ms. Davis didn't seem like she was holding back during the film. She very honestly said, ultimately, "This is what happened and I was young and confused."
SL: Can you imagine being 26 years old and going through that? I also believe that if she had been convicted, she'd still be in prison today. The death penalty had been suspended, and that's what allowed her to get out of prison on bail during the trial. The California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. People were trying to grapple with what was right; that's part of what made the 1970s so interesting.
TR: Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith are financial contributors to the film. How did you connect with them?
SL: I have to thank Jada Pinkett Smith for that. At one point in making the film, I'd raised what I thought was all the money I needed, and I showed a cut to friends. One said, "I can help you raise money," and I said, "I don't need any money" — until I got the reports from my director of research that the cost of the archival footage was three times what we had budgeted. I panicked. I followed up with my girlfriend, and she introduced the project to Jada, who saw the cut and said, "I'm in." Thanks to her, she and her husband's production company, Overbrook, and Jay-Z's Roc Nation helped out.
TR: What do you hope that people take away from Free Angela and All Political Prisoners?
SL: I want the audience to be empowered. Angela's story is one that, if I wrote it as a fiction film, I wouldn't be able to sell it, because nobody would believe it. It's unbelievable but true.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.