Review: “Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners”

With the shadowed image, the outline of the natural revealing the figure within, presented against a white backdrop, the documentary begins. Free Angela and All Political Prisoners is a historical vérité style documentary of the 22-month imprisonment of Angela Davis, from October 13, 1970 until her acquittal on June 4, 1972.

That we are presented the shadow is not only suggestive of this history of racial oppression that persistently haunts POC people to the present day, it also bespeaks the fact that this oppression—this racial, this gender, this political oppression—had nothing to do with Angela in the first place; she was, rather, a scapegoat that was selected to be made an example of, as one man commented on her imprisonment, “what they’re doing to her is an exaggerated form of what happens everyday to black people in this country.” Davis knew that, like all political prisoners, it was how she figured as a black woman and specifically as a communist (she didn’t come out as a lesbian until 2007) that made her so very “dangerous” to white capitalist America. As she explains in the preface to her 1974 autobiography “The one extraordinary event of my life had nothing to do with me as an individual—with a little twist of history, another sister or brother could have easily become the political prisoner whom millions of people from throughout the world rescued from persecution and death.”

With interviews from Davis, her close companions, compatriots, and family, in addition to historical footage from her imprisonment as well as footage from the FBI’s pursuit of her while she went underground for approximately two months before her arrest, Free Angela yields the audience as witness to the shocking political climate of the early 1970s and the absolutely heinous scapegoating of the UCLA philosophy professor/graduate student wrongly accused of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy. Davis was accused of these three crimes by association—each of which carried the death penalty in Ronald Reagan’s California at the time (lest we forget that he was currently governor of the state, while Nixon was president). (California ruled the death penalty to be unconstitutional shortly before Davis’s trial, which allowed her to appeal, and post (thanks to a white farmer!), bail.) Two of the four guns registered under her name were fingered in the Marin County Courthouse revolt, and she was deemed not innocent until proven guilty but, as is the case for most POC people in this country, guilty until proven innocent. Nixon demanded she be placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List; the entire police state was hunting (for) her. With few options, she went underground to avoid arrest—as one supporter commented to a news reporter when asked why Davis would go underground if she were in fact innocent, “would you give yourself up to the vultures?” Historical footage of her actual arrest at the Howard Johnson’s in NYC is included in the film, which then narrates the twenty-two months that follow, from her time in solitary confinement through her acquittal.

Award-winning filmmaker Shola Lynch spent weeks trying to win the very private Davis’s permission to create the documentary. Lynch’s motive was to gain an understanding of Davis as a symbol of power so that, she says in the press release, “young people in the 21st century [can acquire] a sense of what it means to feel collectively powerful and capable of changing the world.” Davis’s reluctance may seem odd considering that her 1974 autobiography provides more of a linear personal narrative than the documentary (not unexpected, since it is an autobiography), although one can sympathize both with the personal desire not to have old emotions made raw anew, as well as with her ongoing political commitment and belief that the 22-month ordeal was not about her individual person but about the political movement for black liberation and freedom from (capitalist and patriarchal) oppression.

The marked difference between her autobiography and the documentary is her relationship with George Jackson, one of the Soledad Brothers who was murdered in prison. In her autobiography she speaks vaguely of her love, which she describes as intimate but wholly political, for Jackson, and does not mention the extent of their intimacy. Indeed, as the documentary reveals, Davis and Jackson met for a tete-a-tete in prison, and, as recorded in a FBI statement, were forbidden from meeting again because of their “lascivious” behavior during that initial meeting, which included “kissing,” and “fondling,” and something else suggestively blotted out of the record. (This difference in the documentary helps to clarify why the prosecuting team chose to argue that she was a “woman driven by passion” instead of arguing the case from a solely political perspective.)

The footage, while at times blurry and out of focus (as is to be expected of older material), is stunning; every time Davis walked into the courtroom she raised her fist in solidarity—“power to the people!”—in order to show the world that she is and will remain strong because the people, people around the world, are carrying her. All of these moments gave me goosebumps, and her exuberant stride out of the San Jose courthouse after her acquittal made me cry with happiness.

The documentary is 101 minutes in duration and yet it felt at times rushed; FBI documents and other letters were glossed over, words highlighted but the texts filmed in such a way as to  render them unreadable. I desperately wanted to read these documents, or at least be provided excerpts on screen for a few seconds. The conclusion, too, seemed slightly abrupt—much like the conclusion of her autobiography—as it motions that the energy sparked by the “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” movement should be harnessed for the continuation of a global effort. Again, from her autobiography, “[i]f we saw this moment as a conclusion and not as a point of departure, we would be ignoring all the others who remained draped in chains. We knew that to save their lives, we had to preserve and build upon the movement.”

While Davis acknowledges that feminism undergirds the global liberation effort, as an ideology that allows for an “understanding [of] the interconnectedness of gender, race, class, sexuality, the economy and trans-nationalism,” gender politics are largely absent from the film, minus her explanation for not joining the Black Panthers (misogyny) and for selecting a woman, Doris Walker, as one member of her legal team. For Davis, in other words, feminism does not stand alone but is inextricably connected to other strands of ideology and activism in the fight for global liberation of all suppressed persons and all political prisoners. Feminism is the belief in liberation, the belief in equality, so Davis’s feminism is not advocated as a single-issue cause but rather the quintessential element of the global liberation movement.

As someone who has taught Davis’s autobiography to a group of college students (at a “criminal justice college” in New York City, of all places), I was eager to see how Lynch gave life, how she made visceral, the words of Davis’s autobiography. The product, fleshed out with supporting materials and interviews, was superb.


Free Angela opens today, exclusively in select AMC theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland/San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Detroit. For more information, see the Facebook page for the film and follow the film on Twitter and Instagram.