Fugitive, radical, communist and philosopher Angela Davis was the lefty hipster’s pin-up girl and the right-winger’s Afro-ed nightmare, and her authority and charisma are on full display in “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners,” Shola Lynch’s near-epic review of the case that made Davis a household name in the early ’70s. While never quite nailing the key question at the heart of Davis’ celebrated prosecution, “Free Angela” is an impressive act of research, editing and period recreation; renewed interest in ’60s politics should assure some robust arthouse runs and healthy ratings for Black Entertainment Television.
Long in the making, and close to adulatory, Lynch’s docu has drawn support from such disparate parties as the Ford Foundation and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, an indication that much of the cachet surrounding Davis remains undiluted. Still, the case remains controversial: In 1970, she was accused of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy in connection with the infamous Marin County Courthouse hostage-taking involving three convicts, including Jonathan Jackson — brother of “Soledad Brother” and author George Jackson. Judge Harold Haley was among those killed in the ensuing shootout. It was alleged that the guns used had been bought by Davis for purposes of the crime, hence her indictment, flight from Los Angeles (where she had been hired, then fired, from UCLA), and her later arrest in New York.
Lynch takes a wealth of archival materials, and one extended present-day interview with Davis, and makes something close to a thriller out of all the political maneuvering, fear-mongering and violence that trailed Davis after her firing by the university, her alliance with the Black Panther Party and Che Lumumba Club of the Communist Party, her romance with the long-imprisoned George Jackson, and her life underground once conspiracy charges were filed in California.
There’s never a doubt that Lynch is in the Davis camp; even the soundtrack, which marries field hollers to funk, is in league with the struggle of militant black Americans against a government they believed, with considerable provocation, was out to get them.
How Jonathan Jackson got the guns, which were in fact owned by Davis, does not seem to be directly addressed. It was the key point of the case brought against her in 1972, but as her legal team pointed out, Davis, a Marxist intellectual educated in Europe and largely influenced by German philosophy, was not a stupid woman; she was found not guilty on all counts. At the same time, the films leaves exactly what happened regarding the guns very vague.
Tech credits are excellent: Editing by Lewis Erskine and Marion Monnier is fast paced, sometimes frenetic, and provides the accelerated pulse the movie needs to maintain the sense of urgency to which Lynch aspires. Music, by guitarist/composer Vernon Reid, possesses a certain level of hysteria, but the same can be said of the Angela Davis story.