On the day of the premiere of her documentary at the Toronto Film Festival, director Shola Lynch answered some questions about the film. Here is a look at the importance of the film – Black Power Takes Center Stage at the Toronto Film Festival.
WaH: Big day today. World premiere of your documentary and a gala screening at the Toronto Film Festival. Happens very rarely. Talk about the how you’re feeling.
SL: Well, I’ve definitely decided that whatever mascara I use will be waterproof. When you set out to make this kind of documentary you’re always fighting so hard to have people recognize it. This is not a TV movie, I made it for the big screen. Of course you want TV. We have TV partners. This is a dramatic and theatrical story, but yet when you’re thinking about making it, over the seven years it took — I thought wouldn’t it be great to premiere at a wonderful festival. So getting into Toronto – wow. And a Gala, huge.
WaH: How does it happen? Do you send them a cut?
SL: Yes, you send it to them, and in this case to Thom Powers, the main curator. He knew it was almost done. He knew that Cannes was flirting with us a little bit but we weren’t really done. And he said I’d really like to see a cut and he saw a cut and also Cameron Bailey (the Artistic Director) saw a cut and they got together and just got behind it. And then they said to me, “Well do you think Angela will come?” I said “I can ask. I think it would be great.” And then one of our investors was Jada Pinkett Smith and they said do you think she would come? And pretty much if I could get the two of them to come, we would have a gala.
WaH: But you probably – the film would have been shown anyway, but the gala part of it, you need celebs.
SL: The gala part of it is, it’s about celebs.
WaH: It’s a 40-year-old story and really hasn’t been told in this way. How did you make the connection with Angela Davis and how did she let you tell her story?
SL: Listen, it was not easy to connect with her. It took a lot of work to do it and actually – I had to work around her in a way. There was no going directly to her. There were several friends and once I got them on board then Angela Davis watched my first movie about Shirley Chisholm. What she said when she saw it was, “I thought I knew that story, and I didn’t. And the way that she said that to me I understood what she wanted out of this. That there’s so much about her story that she didn’t know because she was in prison. She didn’t know what the FBI was doing, she didn’t know what the government was doing, she didn’t even really know what her sister was doing outside. All of these pieces, and she gets to see all of it. What’s great and brave is this is her life but she let me tell this story. She wanted to see a cut at one point, which I did, but she wasn’t involved in the decision making.
WaH: You couldn’t have done it without her.
SL: No, that would have been pointless. To me the whole point is what is her story; what are the choices that she made. How did she go from being a philosophy professor to a political icon? How did that happen? She was a bookish philosophy grad student. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t want you to necessarily agree with her. I don’t even really care if you like her, but it is about seeing this woman face power. As an individual, and then part of a movement.
WaH: Talk about what compelled you to tell this story?
SL: I didn’t really know it. I thought I knew it and as I did a little bit of research I was like wow we don’t know this story. And then I thought, despite the fact that she was a black militant and a communist, it would be easier to raise money for than Chisholm because she’s on college campuses and has an audience, right? No.
WaH: I imagine it would be incredibly difficult.
SL: Yeah. But once I committed to the project, there was for me no turning back. There were moments where I came really close.
WaH: You have now two documentaries – a body of work – documentaries on African American women leaders. Nobody does that. And it’s really important. So talk about what that means. I imagine this could be a calling for you of continuing to tell these stories.
SL: After Chisholm I said I’m not gonna do another woman and I’m definitely not gonna do another black woman. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. But then I realized that these stories aren’t being told, and often when they are, it’s not the way that I would want to see them and experience them. Because for me, if you can’t hit the kind of emotional tone of the person and of the story it’s not about every fact, it’s not a book in that way. That it is still a film. And that’s what excites me. What I would love to be able to do is either produce or direct the narrative versions. I think that there’s room to do the documentaries, to basically do the research and provide the information for scripting and also for educational and entertainment purposes. But then wouldn’t it be great, because we’d reach an even wider audience, to do narrative versions. I mean and they’re fantastic stories.
WaH: So it took 7 years from start to finish?
SL: Yes. But to put it in perspective I also did four work-for-hire projects got married had two children and got a graduate degree.
WaH: And how long did the Chisholm documentary take?
SL: Not as long actually. It was easier to raise money for.
WaH: And I saw Ford Foundation is one of the producers.
SL: Yes. Orlando Bagwell was incredible because early on he said, you know, “Listen, Shola, I think this is a great idea. I love your trailer,” and, “We’ll come in with finishing funds.” And I called him up one day and I don’t know how this – he actually picked up the phone. It was total, it was total luck, cause I’d always send him update emails. Anyway, we were talking and he reiterated the finishing funds, and then I was like, “If I don’t get starting funds, this is never gonna happen.” And he said, “ooooh.” And then he laughed, he’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there before.” So basically I got started with the first round of interviews because of the Ford Foundation.
WaH: When I was first watching the movie I was having all these problems with my internet, and it kept starting and stopping and starting and stopping and I kept having to go back. Every time I started it, the music would come in and it just gave me chills every time I heard it. So talk to me about that music, is it original?
SL: Let me tell you. When I first thought about this the first sound that came into my mind – because I had also worked on the jazz project with Ken Burns, and so I knew something about jazz – and Abby Lincoln and Max Roach made an album called We Insist. And she has the most intense blood curdling scream that is filled with emotion. And this album is about a history of black people in the American made in the ‘60s by Abby Lincoln and Max Roach. And the scream that’s – the sound. I mean we’re talking about a horrific crime that happens where people are killed. And no matter what side of this you’re on, nobody was really interested in that kind of bloodshed. But her scream says more to me. And then the Max Roach estate basically got behind it and allowed us to license it. The other music is original. It’s composed by Vernon Reed.
WaH: It all feels very organic. So you’ve discovered and learned more than anyone about her. What was it about her that made this country go whack-a-doodle?
SUB: I think it is because she is so incredibly self-possessed. Then. Even now. And she’s not apologetic. Imagine that period. What images of black people did you see? She does not fit any stereotype, and in fact, I can imagine that that was absolutely infuriating. And on top of it she was better educated than most Americans. She had been trained in Europe as a philosopher. She spoke two languages. So I can imagine that she’s a great irritant and she’s really just so self-possessed and good looking. And the rest of us schlubs, you know, there’s that.
And then also in that period I can imagine that here’s a woman that’s got everything we’re talking about for the civil rights movement. Why isn’t she the poster child for what’s great in America? But you can’t control people. Right? So I think that’s also an aspect. That she had all these advantages and was critical.
WaH: She’s a transitional figure in the movement.
SL: Absolutely. Absolutely.
WaH: What was the thing that you learned that astonished you the most?
SL: Two things. One, that Angela herself has been incredibly consistent all these years. The story she told back then, as far as I have investigated, is still the story.
WaH: Remind people exactly of the story.
SL: She was accused of being the master-mind for this crime. The way that she talks about it now is the way that she talked about it then. And there really aren’t inconsistencies in that. There’s also the four-year request for the FBI files.
WaH: Please explain.
SL: Angela’s never requested her FBI files. So she gave me a waiver to get her files. So I have five giant boxes of – and the greatest, the fascinating thing about the FBI is they document everything. So they’re an absolute record of truth, in a way, and then there’s your interpretation of these facts. There’s a timeline, it’s really meticulous. She is who she says she is. That is the first thing that astonished and kind of shocked me. Because you always find out something.
The second thing is the government really felt under siege in this period, whether you’re talking about Ronald Reagan or Nixon. And they were having a hard time distinguishing between communists and radical left which was anti-Vietnam. They really felt like there was a revolution going on. The kids — they lumped all the kids together — which was their mistake. And their response was, “These kids are acting badly and they need to be punished. It was intense. We found in the files that Nixon was talking about her in the White House. That was unbelievable to me. And when they found out that the gun was registered her name, Halderman wrote in his diary, “P, thrilled.” President thrilled. Because it means it proves the conspiracy to them. I wouldn’t have believed it.
WaH: I was shocked by the quote from Nixon’s secretary. Rosemary Woods I was just like, “Okay, if this woman was talking about this, she was talking about a lot of other shit.”
WaH: She was not a –
SL: Wallflower. And the thing is, I’m not trying to make the government the bad guy. I think the believed they were doing the right thing. But you have to balance all these perspectives together so that nobody seems absolutely crazy. Cause it’s a crazy period.
WaH: What do you want people to learn from this movie?
SL: I want people to learn – well learn something about the story, of course, but I want the take away to be the questions that are raised watching her make these choices, watching what happens, and examining your own life. Like where do we need to stand up and we don’t? Where do we need to be conscious of our choices and are not? She did not sleepwalk through her life. And that is what I find to be admirable. And that’s something – and as women we don’t get to see that on the screen. I mean we’re starved for some – we’re starved. And when people say, “Who is the audience for this?” and I was like, “Are you kidding?”
WaH: Well, it’s also kind of like what you’re saying is this is a story that everybody needs to see.
SL: And let me tell you, that’s how Jada got on board. She saw the film, she was like, “Oh my gosh, I thought I knew this story. I didn’t.” And her daughter Willow walked into the room while she watching it, and she was like, “Oh my, if I don’t know anything how is she gonna know anything?” And then she made Will watch it. And he was like “You want me to watch this leftie” blah blah blah and then he’s like, “Okay okay okay okay.” And then he got into it. So it’s going to be women who bring their partners, their families, their friends. I mean that’s just the kind of story it is. And there are a lot of us. And whether we agree with her or not, whether we agree with her choices, I hope what I’ve provided in the film is a good ride.