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Interview: Shola Lynch and 'Free Angela' - From Thought To Screen (Premiered On BET Last Night)

by Zeinabu irene Davis
February 27, 2014 10:17 AM
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Zeinabu Davis: Oh, my God.  I was like, whoa.  I think you and Bradford Young came up with some really interesting choices, and the scene of Angela and George meeting in prison particularly moved me.  Could you talk about the process of coming up with the scenes that would be re-enacted and why you decided to use those?

Shola Lynch:. Well, yes.  I mean, in some ways it was very practical, because we don’t have footage of those moments.

Zeinabu Davis: Of course.

Shola Lynch: And every time we tried to use generic archival materials, it was so distracting and it didn’t fit emotionally.  So I knew that I wanted to create images – but I also knew that because of the way that the budget is put together, that I couldn’t make a movie. I wanted them to be, in a way, photographed impressions that gave you a sense of what was going on without, like, full scenes.   I knew they had to be edited in a non-linear way, and that really – and Bradford totally got what I was trying to do, and working together, we were able to elevate that completely.  I was really nervous, you know, to have my first foray into just creating dramatic images.  He was just wonderful to work with.  So I went for it, and together we created some really beautiful imagery that helps.  It doesn’t feel disconnected from the film, but it kind of helps move the emotional quality and the narrative for it.  

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, it does.  I have only watched it on the little screen; I can’t wait to see it on the big screen, ‘cause I’m tired of looking at it on my computer.

Shola Lynch: It’s spectacular.  That stuff, those scenes are particularly spectacular on the big screen.  

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah.  I can’t wait. I can’t wait to see it live and with an audience, you know, ‘cause I’m whooping and hollering when I’m watching the film.  I know my family thinks I’m crazy, but, okay.  I want to see it in a real theatre.  You know how black people do.  We’ll be talking through the movie. Yeah.  But, so the footage that’s of Angela in the classroom, is that your actress, or is that Angela?

Shola Lynch: Oh no.  That’s archival footage.  

Zeinabu Davis: Really!?

Shola Lynch: That’s archival footage from a French film – well, actually it’s an American film.  It’s a student who was at UCLA who happened just to be following Angela Davis because of the controversy around Ronald Reagan and her being a Communist.  Nobody knew the events would unfold in this way.  There was footage of her in the classroom, and on the campus.

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, I was like, wait, it does look like Angela, but this, some of this stuff is so evocative, you know, it’s got the same mood.  So I was like, I began to question it after a while.  And I’m like, wow.

Shola Lynch: No, all of our recreations are silhouettes.  

Zeinabu Davis: Right, yes.

Shola Lynch:. They’re very dark.  They’re suggestive of Angela rather than actually of her; because we didn’t have the money to make the movie.  That was not what we were trying to do.  This is a documentary.  So we wanted to create images that worked with the archival, that didn’t take you out of time and space, and were evocative of, of her and the feelings that we were trying to convey, you know, in that particular scene.  Working with Eisa Davis was just the best choice, because she knows her art so well, she’s an actress, number one, and she knows her aunt so well that she would be able to kind of capture her body and body movements.

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, totally.

Shola Lynch: In a way they’re subtle, but they work so well. It works because it’s in silhouette.  You know, like, if we were actually doing the movie, Angela at 26, we need a young woman.  But to train a young woman to transform herself into Angela Davis is a much larger project than we had time for.  You know what I mean?  So I knew it had to be more moody and evocative in the way that sometimes photographs can be.  

Zeinabu Davis: Speaking of evocative moments, one of the most touching moments for me in the film is when Angela is talking about the case, and that there’s a time that she has to be separated from Ruchell Magee. It’s like 40 years later, and you can see that she’s still so upset about it.  She looks like she’s fighting back tears, when she talks about that.  

Shola Lynch: Yeah.  I mean, her commitment to the justice issues and political prisoners is serious.  It wasn’t a fad.  It’s something she’s done her whole life, and she realizes that she was lucky because of the movement that was built around her.  She tried to leverage that movement to help other political prisoners.  It’s part of the reason why she didn’t want to sever the case, she knew that Ruchell would be treated in a different way, because there wasn’t the whole movement around Ruchell.  His experience was more typical of the experience of young black people who get caught up in the prison system and get stuck there, and things escalate.

Zeinabu Davis: Right, yeah.

Shola Lynch: He’s still in prison today.

Zeinabu Davis: Whoa.  Wow.

Shola Lynch: So, I’m sure in a way, I mean, I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I’m sure in a way what she has is survivor guilt. You know, I’m sure she has guilt that she has been freed and there are so many people that have not.  Let me say this is not a question of guilt or innocence, right, because in a way what the story tells us, is that justice is not always just about guilt or innocence. Meaning that she was innocent, and she could have very well been convicted.

Zeinabu Davis: Right, no.  I totally understood what you meant.

Shola Lynch: Yes, not that she was guilty and she got out.  I don’t think that.  I think, in fact, and you know, I wondered going in what I would find, and I was open to everything.  I do feel like the verdict was a just verdict.  But the right verdict.  

Zeinabu Davis: One of the things that I found really interesting about the film, too, was how you tell the story.  You know, you don’t go the typical conventional documentary route  and have a bunch of historians or experts, tell the story.  You use people who are close to Angela to tell the story, particularly, her childhood friends, Margaret and Bettina.  Those are the ones that actually say what happened when the verdict is announced.  I thought that was brilliant, to make that as a choice. I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you decided to go that route.

Shola Lynch: Well, first of all, there are no experts, because historians have written nothing on this.  So in a way the film is like original research. It’s like original scholarship.  It’s digging deeper into a story we think we know.  Secondly, when you have access to the people that lived it, why not use their voices?  Weave them together in a way that each individual voice creates a larger sense of truth and wholeness.  I think that there is something beautiful in that.  I always think of Thanksgiving dinner when I think of filmmaking.  When you sit down at Thanksgiving dinner, you have all kinds of generations, and they all talk in different ways, and they like to tell stories, etc., and you’re a youngster, and all these old people, you’re like, ugh, boring.   Then you get to some age in your life. Wow, did someone’s aunt so-and-so just say she was a Black Panther?  You hear the stories, and they become alive, because they’re part of who we are as a nation, as a culture, and they’re the kind of the griot human element of the storytelling, when it’s told by folks that haven’t gotten it all down pat.  You know what I mean?

Zeinabu Davis: Right, yeah. On that note, I was so happy to see and hear from Angela’s sister, Fania.  She’s so articulate and beautiful; she’s really compelling on the screen.

Shola Lynch: Isn’t she, isn’t she?  I wish there had been room to interview everybody in the family. But, you know, I love the sister connection, and I love it when Angela is unavailable and in prison, and her sister steps up to be the Angela surrogate, and travels all over the world for her, there’s something really beautiful in the family relationship.  I mean, the film is not about family, but family is so present in it, that the families who come from her, and how many times do we see stories about black families?  While the film is not being promoted as a story about black families [laughs], it’s a strong element.

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah. Right, exactly.

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  • marie-francoise | April 9, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    What a wonderful inspiring piece! All aspects were delved into... idea, process, production and finally getting your 'baby' out in the world. I'm sure the doc is amazing but this interview was insightful all on its own. Thank you shadow & act for making this forum possible...

    As a mother and a filmmaker/actress I especially appreciated the conversation about being a mom and being an artist. It felt very hopeful and positive. I also really loved when Shola said: "I’m tired of people telling me there’s no audience for stories about women and no black women, especially. You know what I mean? I’m so sick of that." ME TOO!! I was fortunate enough to meet Shola many years ago in Minnesota at an IFP event right after her first doc came out and she was friendly and approachable. I've also had the huge good fortune to know and work with the inimitable Dr. Zeinabu irene Davis -- thank you sis for providing such a thought-provoking in depth interview! I'm off to see the film this weekend :)

  • Lia | April 8, 2013 4:59 PMReply

    This interview is so inspiring, full of true creative wisdom...

  • Bee | April 7, 2013 9:23 PMReply

    Great interview. Can't wait to see this!

  • Terri Francis | April 6, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    Wow wow what a beautiful beautiful interview. Thank you so much! Yes, power to the people.

  • Charles David Brooks, III | April 6, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    It is difficult to read page 5. Did she talk about Angela days in Brooklyn, NY?

  • T. | April 5, 2013 4:51 PMReply

    Oh, my, my, my!!!! What a beautiful interview. I felt like I was listening...watching two great sistahs who have been on the journey and decided to share some of the "inside story" about filmmaking!!! What a pleasure and an honor---to you both. The interview flowed so well--just the right amount of questions and the questions perfectly asked which gave us a wealth of info in Shola's answers. Thank you. I liken this interview to a "page turner" in a great work of literature...with each advance to the next page, I wanted more! I was touched by the analogy of a Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, we have those in our families who don't know how much breadth and depth they have to tell us. The true griots. The main theme of the film is not so much about family---well for me--it is rooted in family and relationships. I don't believe Ms. Davis would have survived without her family. The inclusion of the family relationships was really a plus in reading this interview. I can go on and on and on. And I will. I will tell every person of interest about this interview and about the documentary. Again, thank you. Well done. And shout outs to all who made the film possible. What a gift to us all!

  • urbanauteur | April 5, 2013 4:26 PMReply

    Big shut out 2 you,Zeinabu, and @ Ohio(film dept) Univ-John Butler-Mabel Haddock-Robert Banks,jr..;-)

  • Sergio | April 5, 2013 12:16 PMReply

    FANTASTIC interview!

  • sergio | April 5, 2013 1:23 PM

    One of the great things is that you really had the time to talk to her. Nowadays they give you usually 15-20 minutes to talk with a filmmaker. You really need time to get into and discuss the filmmaking process which make your interview with Shola (whom I've met before and is just a energetic terrific person) so unique.

    See you soon here for the L.A. Rebellion film series!

  • Zeinabu Davis | April 5, 2013 1:04 PM

    Thank you so much Sergio! I really want people to know and honor Shola's accomplishments as well as to learn and share about Angela Davis and the Power to the People movement, especially since it is still so relevant to things going on today. We had a sneak preview of the film last night here in San Diego. Shola, Angela, Jada and all would have been proud. A documentary film brought people together from nearly all the colleges and universities in San Diego! It was a diverse crowd - elders, kids, Black, white, Latino and Asian. We had a long and fruitful discussion afterwards.

  • Zeinabu Davis | April 5, 2013 1:04 PM

    Thank you so much Sergio! I really want people to know and honor Shola's accomplishments as well as to learn and share about Angela Davis and the Power to the People movement, especially since it is still so relevant to things going on today. We had a sneak preview of the film last night here in San Diego. Shola, Angela, Jada and all would have been proud. A documentary film brought people together from nearly all the colleges and universities in San Diego! It was a diverse crowd - elders, kids, Black, white, Latino and Asian. We had a long and fruitful discussion afterwards.

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