By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist April 2, 2013 at 7:03PM
"Black power means dignity," is a phrase that lingers from Shola Lynch's documentary about activist and scholar Angela Davis. And dignity is just one of the many qualities that one can attach to Davis, a bold and powerful figure whose own battle for justice and freedom is chronicled in "Free Angela & All Political Prisoners." A fascinating slice out of a turbulent time in American history, this detailed doc is a compelling portrait of a legal case that found activism, politics, freedom of speech and more all dovetailing together into an event that not only captured the attention of the nation, but of people worldwide.
In her early life, Davis always seemed just one step away from being involved in hugely shifting tides of the '50s and '60s. She moved north from Birmingham and then went abroad to study just as the civil rights movement exploded. But upon her return, involvement in political struggle wouldn't be too far behind. Hired as the assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA, she was open about her affiliations, stating that she was a communist. This, combined with her supposed ties to the Black Panther party (a group she actually had limited involvement with, opposing their ideals of nationalism and a general gender divide within the organization that put men first), was enough to fire up a campaign to have her ousted from her job. And indeed she was, but this was the battle before the war.
On August 7, 1970, the Soledad brothers (central figures in attempting to organize prison reform) staged an attempted escape from a courtroom that resulted in the death of Judge Harold Haley along with a juror, prosecutor, and three black men. It soon emerged that the guns used in the in the incident were purchased by Davis, and, even more, she had penned more than one love letter to George Jackson, one of the men involved. Davis went on the run and she was placed on the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted list. She was eventually apprehended, and facing conspiracy, murder and kidnapping charges all with the death penalty attached, the battle for her freedom began.
Lynch's film certainly goes above and beyond in terms of laying out almost every angle of the case, with in-depth interviews from Davis herself to her friends, lawyers, the judge on the case and more. She also expands her scope outward to include how the story was playing out in the media, and though it's clear where Lynch's sympathy lies, it soon becomes clear that this case was also a highly symbolic battle between the government and those who were resisting and questioning everything from the Vietnam war to the treatment of blacks in America. It's pretty riveting stuff, but Lynch's film does leave a few questions unanswered.
Foremost, it's never made clear why Davis had purchased four guns, even if she wasn't directly involved in the Soledad brothers incident. 'Free Angela Davis' makes the argument that due to the many death threats she received, she bought the weapons for protection. And while that is more than likely the case, given her ties to George Jackson and the simple fact they were used, the film never resolves (or asks her directly) what the true nature of her involvement was.
But for this writer, one of the most interesting threads involves her bail. When she was arrested, the death penalty was still on the books in California, making bail an impossibility. With the state of California abolishing the practice as she waited in prison, her team mobilized to raise the funds to get her out pending trial. Aretha Franklin had promised to give any amount that was required, but couldn't be reached as she was in the West Indies. So who stepped in? A white, middle-aged farmer named Rodger McAfee who simply believed that Davis' cause was just and the equality of all people a truly American ideal. He's never really mentioned again, and yes he's a footnote in this tale, but it's one we wouldn't have minded a bit more from, particularly once the outcome of the case is determined. It's also an indication that Davis' struggle crossed color lines, something that could have been investigated more.
But these minor quibbles aside, on the whole, "Free Angela & All Political Prisoners" is about as comprehensive a doc as you could ask for. Lynch's film allows the actions of Davis -- via archival footage -- coupled with her current reflections on everything that happened, to stand on their own in presenting the activist, feminist and icon as an individual of true strength and resilience. What is most remarkable in this journey is how her faith in her beliefs never wavers, and her fearlessness in the face of criticism, doubt and taking stances that truly put her life in danger.
Confidently constructed, and aided by an assured focus, "Free Angela & All Political Prisoners" is a solid tribute a woman who was one of many vital pieces of the civil rights movement, and an insightful study of a time when the American identity -- both politically and socially -- was being drastically reshaped. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from TIFF.