Certainly one of the stars at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was legendary activist/educator and communist Angela Davis. But unlike many of the others, this unassuming activist resisted stardom, rather drawing attention to the struggles that still continue. She emphasized collective action, as in the exemplary worldwide Free Angela Davis campaign that was responsible for her release from prison.
Director Shola Lynch has made two feature documentaries in her career, both about famous strong Black women, the first being Chisholm ’72 – Unbought and Unbosssed. Now she offers a thrilling political courtroom drama, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. (It was Angela who was responsible for adding “And All Political Prisoners” to the film title)
The importance of this project was noted by the fact that it was the first non-music documentary screened as a Gala film at the Toronto festival. A sold-out audience in the large theater gave it a rousing standing ovation as Davis, Lynch and Jada Pinkett Smith (who helped fund the film) appeared on stage. Many faces familiar to activists appear in the film, from Bettina Aptheker, sister Fania Davis, and Gus Hall, to Kendra Alexander and Jarvis Tyner. Angela’s niece (Angela) Eisa Davis, closely resembling her aunt, plays her at times in the movie where archival footage was not available.
The film starts with a brief history of Angela’s schooling and politicization overseas, as she returns to America with her degree in philosophy to teach Marxism at UCLA. Her first lecture drew 2,000 students. Angela immediately became active with the Black Panthers and then helped form the Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party USA. A strong relationship developed with George Jackson, a young man charged with armed robbery of $70, imprisoned at San Quentin where he was killed 10 years later. Jackson and others became known as the Soledad Brothers because of their outspoken radical politics. Angela was subsequently fired from her teaching job for being a communist.
The film focuses on Angela’s flight from charges of conspiracy, kidnapping and first degree murder, (she was put on J. Edgar Hoover’s Top 10 Most Wanted list), her capture two months later and the eventual trial where she was charged with supplying weapons for the courtroom murders of six people including a judge. In fact it was George Jackson’s 17-year-old brother Jonathan, who was Angela’s bodyguard, who had masterminded the plan to free the Soledad Brothers, which ended disastrously in the courtroom slayings.
Amazing interviews with key figures in Angela’s trial, including the judge, her defense attorneys and close friends in the Free Angela movement, add immediacy and intrigue to the tightly edited and researched story. Lynch’s interviews with the FBI reveal how they eventually were able to capture Angela in a Howard Johnson hotel in New York City. Angela revealed at her press screening that she learned about how they found her for the first time as she watched the movie.
Angela Davis’s life went on from her triumphant court victory to a committed life of continued activism. The exciting film with an upbeat ending roused the entire audience and should have the same effect on anyone committed to justice and the struggle for a better world.
Angela described her response to being asked to appear in a movie about her life: “I’ve always been a reluctant public person. But I found the documentary might be important to speak to young people in the 21st century about movements that were powerful and victorious. Forty years ago no one could imagine that despite the fact I was innocent that I would be able to stand up to the power of the state. But that campaign that developed all over the world, literally on every continent, made it possible for us to experience that victory. And so I thought it might be important for young people today to get a sense of what it might be to feel collectively powerful and capable of changing the world. We need a LOT of that today.”
Director Lynch has honed her skills at creating moving stories about people committed to social change. As for gathering information, she states, “I wanted to find whatever truth, facts I could find. FBI files are a wonderful resource. I was mindful of two audiences, those who lived through it and the younger audience who were learning for the first time.”
Asked if they anticipate any opposition to this film, Angela replied, “Oh, yes, we will experience some of that anti-communism. But I think it’s important to point out that the anti-communism of the past is not the same as we experience today. Young people are much more open and especially because of the Occupy movement, there is an ability to be critical of capitalism, there is an anti-capitalism that hasn’t been around since the ’20s and ’30s when the Communist Party was responsible in the U.S. for developing such things as Social Security and unemployment insurance and so on.”
Angela modestly ends the film by drawing attention away from herself and towards the collective approach, making the point once again that change is possible when determined people work together.