Angela Davis is that rare totemic figure of the ’60s who remains totemic today. Icily articulate and still beautiful as she nears 70, Davis compels attention on screen. You can see why Shola Lynch would want to make this documentary about her, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.”
Davis compelled even more attention in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The FBI made her only the third woman to appear on its Ten Most Wanted list. Richard Nixon publicly praised her arrest. John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded a tribute to her, “Angela.” The Rolling Stones dedicated “Sweet Black Angel” to her. It didn’t hurt her public profile that Davis wore her hair in what may have been the world’s largest Afro.
Her background was unusual, to say the least. Davis grew up in Alabama, went to high school in Greenwich Village, and graduated from Brandeis. She studied political philosophy with Herbert Marcuse and became a Communist Party member. Hired in 1969 to teach at the University of California at Los Angeles, she had 2,000 students show up for her first lecture. Davis was that magnetic — and controversial. Citing her politics, the university’s board of regents fired her. “You couldn’t have put anything together with a person who would have been more problem-creating than Angela Davis,” Charles E. Young, the chancellor of UCLA at the time, says in the film.
The firing made Davis famous. Her having purchased the guns used by black militants in a dramatic courtroom shootout in 1970 made her notorious — or, depending on your politics, a martyr. The shootings took place in San Rafael, Calif. Four people were killed, including a judge. Davis was eventually charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy. The resulting trial, which lasted 13 weeks, ended in her acquittal, in 1972.
“Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” has a lot going for it (and that’s not counting the fact that among its executive producers are Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Jay-Z). First, there’s Davis, with her unmistakable star power, both then and now. There’s also the documentary’s jittery rhythm and urgency. Davis was a political media celebrity, which means she was the subject of many news photos and much television footage. A large portion of both find their way into the documentary. Lynch uses them to excellent effect. The period material has a time-machine effect. People who weren’t around during the ’60s-’70s cusp can hardly appreciate just how weird that time was. “Free Angela” brings that weirdness back.
Archival material isn’t enough for Lynch. She also uses reenactments. We see a tall slender woman in silhouette or with her back to us, shot in bluish light. Worse than unnecessary, the reenactments seem silly. More problematic is Lynch’s unwillingness to ask tough questions. Davis was not legally culpable for passing on the guns. Does she feel any moral guilt? The prosecution made much of her passionate letters to George Jackson, a Black Panther whose eloquent writings from prison made him a hero on the left. It was Jackson’s brother who brought the weapons Davis had purchased into the courtroom. What were Davis’s feelings for Jackson? How does she view her doctrinaire communism now? Not everyone would consider it a source of pride to have received thousands of fan letters from East German schoolchildren.
A description of Davis’s post-trial life would have been welcome. Twice Communist Party candidate for vice president, she now teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz. That raises one more question. Santa Cruz is less than a hundred miles away from San Rafael. How many lifetimes away does it feel like?