In 2004 director Shola Lynch’s first film premiered at Sundance. The documentary told the story of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, and her 1972 campaign. Ms. Lynch was only three years old at the time of the campaign, yet as she grew up she found herself consistently drawn to the time period. The film won a Peabody award.
After Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed premiered, Ms. Lynch began work on her latest film, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. The 70s again serves as the backdrop.
The film tells the story of activist Angela Davis. It focuses on the events and the aftermath of a 1970 Marin County Superior Court courtroom takeover and the subsequent hostage situation during which a Superior Court judge was killed. Ms. Davis had purchased guns which were used in the takeover. She was arrested, jailed and tried, but found not guilty.
Ms. Lynch said she was inspired to make Free Angela because she felt there was an information gap.
“There was so much about the story that I didn’t completely understand, yet she’s so well-known,” Ms. Lynch said. “It’s funny, the way history is taught, you know three sentences on somebody . . . often if you look beyond the three sentences there’s a really good story there.”
Ms. Lynch described Free Angela as a “political crime drama with a love story in the center.” The love story involves Ms. Davis’ relationship with Black Panther member George Jackson, whose imprisonment sparked the courtroom takeover.
The film features interviews with friends, family and attorneys of Ms. Davis, along with archival footage. But its real strength comes from Angela’s own words. Ms. Lynch said she wasn’t interested in doing the project if she could not get access to Ms. Davis. Obtaining that access was a months-long process, she said, and Ms. Lynch’s previous experience making Chisholm ‘72 was a key component.
“Really, the thing that sold it was my other documentary,” Ms. Lynch said. “When we were finally able to meet, [Angela] said ‘I thought I knew [Shirley Chisholm’s] story.’”
“The way she said it made me think that there’s so much about [her own] story that she can’t possibly know,” Ms. Lynch said.
Infusing the film with context was a priority for Ms. Lynch and her crew. The time period is as much a character as Angela Davis.
“I think one of the reasons I’m attracted to the 70s is that a lot of people, just regular folks, had a sense of political purpose, and politics was really a part of your life,” Ms. Lynch said. “People were kind of living their politics in a real way, and nobody was media trained, so they said what they thought. There was a refreshing frankness that we don’t experience anymore.”
It took four months in the editing room just to “break the spine” of the story, Ms. Lynch said, and another four months to complete the process.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners premiered in Toronto in April of 2012. It has since been shown across the country and will be released on DVD on August 20.
“Her story is, I think, very instructive and illuminating about power and politics and criminality,” Ms. Lynch said. The themes that emerged at the time are still relevant today, she said.
“I couldn’t help but think about her story — and the media, and the lawyers — when I was watching everything with Trayvon [Martin].”
Angela Davis’s story is “an emotional livewire for a lot of people,” Ms. Lynch said. “The good part is she still starts a very robust discussion, just her name alone.”
The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival will host a special screening of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners on Tuesday, August 20, at the regional high school Performing Arts Center. A discussion session with Angela Davis and fellow film subject Margaret Burnham will follow. The panel is moderated by Charlayne Hunter-Gault and the event is hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.