TIFF 2012: Free Angela & All Political Prisoners – Documentary Review
Director: Shola Lynch
Starring: Angela Davis and Eisa Davis Runtime: 101 minutes TIFF 2012 Programme: Gala Presentation
Free Angela & All Political Prisoners is a feature documentary about the legendary political activist, Angela Davies, where she is given a chance to speak freely about her imprisonment in the 1970’s, when she was labeled as a conspirator and terrorist.
The film tells of how Davis’ open admission that she belonged to the Communist Party made her appointment as professor in the philosophy department at UCLA an issue of ‘concern’ for then California governor, Ronald Reagan. The government – Reagan especially – believed her to be a threat because she could use her academic position to turn young students into communists and anarchists of some sort. Reagan actually said to the press that he believed her hiring was a “deliberate provocation”; this was his “personal opinion”. This was only one of her many problems. Davis became a symbol for the anti-war movement – the rise of the Black Panther – and the political and racism issues forming in the U.S. during the time.
The lens then turns to Davis’ being charged for kidnapping and murder. She garnered such charges since Jonathan Jackson and others used firearms purchased by Davis in their well-known taking of the Marin County courthouse and kidnapping Judge Harold Haley. The end to that ordeal, as many of us know, ended quite bloody with Jackson and Judge Haley both dead along with some of the jurors and two of the inmates. The FBI and the government then turned their attention to Davis and added her to the Most Wanted List when she went underground for some time.
Davis’ sister, Fania, clearly describes how this was a “construction of an imaginary enemy and that her education was also on trial”. The tension was high during that time given the issues surrounding racism and the criticism of the Vietnam War. The UCLA chancellor at the time, Charles Young, summarized things very nicely: Davis’ crime was that, at the time, she was a woman, a feminist, a black individual, a communist, and an educated person. All of these, made her an ‘enemy’ in the eye of the general population. During her trial, there were movements for the freedom of Angela Davis all over the world. She became an even bigger symbol not just for members of the Communist party but also to many facing political persecution.
What is very poignant in the film is Davis recounting her personal connection to George Jackson (Jonathan Jackson’s brother; also known as a ‘Soledad Brother’). Davis and Jackson loved each other as individuals and as comrades. The prosecution tried to use this connection and Davis’ very intimate letters to Jackson as a means to show she was a woman blinded by love and that she’d do anything to get Jackson out of jail. This was one of the more difficult aspects of the hearing for Davis; nonetheless, she was cleared of all charges. Davis’ description of that moment in the courtroom is candid. Through the interviews, Davis appears composed, moved yet determined to tell her side of the story. It’s been a long time but it’s something that is of great importance to American history and to her personally.
Director Shola Lynch creatively adds reenactments to the film to give us Davis’ perspective during that time. By ‘seeing’ how it was for her, the personal element of the film is more palpable. This may not always work but in this particular one, it adds to the already personal tone of the film. Of note in the film is its use of music. The music brings us back to the period, creating the energy and mood of the 70’s. Overall, this documentary brings a personal aspect to a well-known story, providing a thought provoking experience.