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Interview: Shola Lynch and ‘Free Angela’ – From Thought To Screen (Premiered On BET Last Night)

Interview: Shola Lynch and 'Free Angela' - From Thought To Screen (Premiered On BET Last Night)

Editor’s note: It made its TV broadcast premiere on BET last night, and my Twitter feed was all abuzz about it, by those who apparently hadn’t already seen it. Thus, I thought it would be a good idea to repost this comprehensive interview we did with the director of the film, Shola Lynch, handled by Zeinabu irene Davis, which is an absolute must read, if you missed it when it was originally published last April.
 Like I said it’s quite thorough, so set aside time to read it, because it’s a long, informative and entertaining read.

On March 27, I had the great opportunity to interview Shola Lynch about the groundbreaking premiere of her documentary feature, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.  This release is the first time that an African American woman producer/director has had a documentary film in theatrical distribution.  This is in addition to her break through documentary, Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004) that was also one of the first documentaries by a Black woman to receive home video distribution on the video market.  I wanted to conduct this interview to make people aware of this important historical event and to also ask questions of her as a fellow filmmaker.  Erica Fontana transcribed the following interview.

Zeinabu Davis: Shola, I’m very proud of you, and very happy for you.

Shola Lynch: Thank you.  I mean, you know how hard it is to tell these kinds of stories creatively.  Even just to make them good.  But then the business side is just as hard.

Zeinabu Davis: Yes, I totally understand and that’s what people don’t get.  And they think, oh, it’s all so glamorous, and sometimes I have to stop from rolling my eyes – and it’s like, no really, it’s not.  It’s ugly and it’s hard. [laughs]

Shola Lynch: Exactly, and distribution is just as much work.  It’s just as much work as the making.

Zeinabu Davis: Uh-huh, girl tell me about it, I hear you!  

Zeinabu Davis: Okay, let’s start off – if you could tell us why you decided to become a filmmaker.  Because the thing that’s intriguing to me about you is that you have a Masters degree in American history, from UC Riverside, and then you earned another Masters of Science degree from the School of Journalism at Columbia University.  So how or why did you make did you make the transition from, journalism to documentary filmmaking?  

Shola Lynch: It’s such a personal journey.  I grew up in the ‘70s.   Do you remember that album, the Marlo Thomas album, Free to Be You and Me?

Zeinabu Davis: Yes.  

Shola Lynch:  I loved that album and really believed that, so, you know, I grew up as an individual.  I had a vague sense of history and my place in the world, but I was an individual.  I ran track and went to the University of Texas on a track scholarship.  All of a sudden, when you’re outside of your family space, you’re confronted with the world, and guess what?  I was not allowed to be an individual.  I was black and I was a woman – and I was a black woman. [laughs].  I went through that angry militant phase.  But I realized that part of that anger was because I didn’t know who I was and where I came from.  I didn’t know my history.  I became fascinated with literature, philosophy and history – it fed me all of this information.  I realized that part of it also is that we don’t read so much, so I thought, I’m going to be a curator.  I’m going to bring history alive through stuff – through photographs, film and etc, and curate.  I didn’t really know you could be an artist.  I thought okay, I can do that – I have a master’s in American history and public history, resource management.  But when I came out of graduate school, there were all these cuts in the arts.  Newt Gingrich was leading the House, and I was having trouble finding a job, and somebody said to me, well, have you ever thought about documentary filmmaking?  And I was like, no.  All my filmmaking friends were such geeks.  They were like, yeah, you should frame it that way, so you could do this shot?  I’m like, ah, no, what? I was like, no.  But I landed a job by accident with Florentine Films, which is Ken Burns’ company.

Zeinabu Davis: Right, so your academic background helped you.

Shola Lynch: Yeah.  It was precisely because I knew how to research, and this was the beginning of the Internet.  Folks were thinking that they could do a quick search and that was research.  Well, no, I knew how to dig into facts.  I worked on the Frank Lloyd Wright film and then the Jazz series, and I fell in love with storytelling on film.  The process and the impact on audiences amazed me.  I said, ah, I want to see if I can do this.   I want to see if I can direct.  Chisholm ’72 is the first film that I directed.

Zeinabu Davis: Go on girl!  

Shola Lynch: And then you get hooked.  You know what I mean?

Zeinabu Davis: Yes, I know too well.

Shola Lynch: I found that then films lead people to want to read.  They lead people to want to know more.  But we have to, we have to stop, we have to stop criticizing folks for not knowing stuff and make the information accessible.  And why not in the form of the griot, you know what I mean? We have all this great technology.  We used to tell stories about each other.  We used to know our whole history, culture, etc, through stories.  We don’t have time for that anymore.  We let other people tell us who we are, and that has got to stop.  

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, totally, I’m with you on that.  So let me go right to the title of the film, because I think it’s really telling and interesting that the title of the film is not just Free Angela, but Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.  Can you talk about that as a choice?

Shola Lynch: Sure.  You know, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners was a working title, and I was like, you know what, I’m just going to keep it there, because I know once we get to the point of being finished, the distributors are going to be like, hmm, we’re going to cut it.  The funny thing is, I feel like I’ve gotten away with something, because nobody’s cut it.  [laughs]

Zeinabu Davis: That’s great.  But for me, I love that it’s – I love the title as the full title, because that represents Angela’s spirit.  It’s not just about her.  It’s about the community and all of us.

Shola Lynch:  I completely agree, because it’s not just about her.  For her, it was never just about her.  So it was something that was an easy give me – it was easy to give her that.  And I said, as long as we can keep it, we’ll try.  I also think that it helps you understand that it is not about the present.  This, the story, uh, resonates with the present, but it’s about the past.  We don’t talk like that now. [laughs]

Zeinabu Davis: This was a really big project, could you share how long it took you to collect your primary materials or, you know, your source data?

Shola Lynch: Sure.  The hardest part for this project actually was raising the money, but then there were other things.  Because it took so long to raise the money, there were other things we ended up having access to.  Because it took over two years to get access to the FBI files.  The process is just really slow.  Then once we got the files, it took time to be able to comb through them.  So what happens when you have a longer arc of time to work is that more stuff surfaces, more information surfaces.  In a way I feel like an archaeologist.  Because, you run out of money, but at a certain point, the film has to be done.   With the film then, out in the world, I hope more information surfaces, more lost artifacts that are part of the story, and people will come forward.   We pressed as hard as we could in the time that we had.  


Zeinabu Davis:  The last time I saw you was a few years ago at an NBPC event, and Saint Clair Bourne was working with you on the project.  Would you like to say anything about your relationship with him and his work with you?  

Shola Lynch: You know, I have been thinking about him a lot lately, and what he did with Black Documentary Collective, which was so important to my personal growth as a filmmaker, because he brought other filmmakers in to talk about their work.  People that I never would have had access to. And, you know, I just got back from France, and I have been thinking a lot about the time he brought Melvin Van Peebles to talk about Classified X.  We had this really intense discussion about blackness and imagery and making films, and he was like, I had to go abroad to get this funded, you know, if you can get abroad, you do it.  And here’s this story about Angela Davis and a third of the budget comes from France.  There was no way to raise the money here initially.  But I could get a little bit from the Ford Foundation, a little bit from granting organizations, but not enough to start, not enough to get fully into the production.  By accident, I got tacked in with some French producers, and they were like, we think we can help you raise money, and they raised a third of the budget in France.  This allowed me to take all of that – all of the funds that we had raised, and come back and leverage the rest of the funding.  To my great surprise, you know, BET stepped up and put a significant amount of money into the production to get us over the hump for the television rights.  

Zeinabu Davis: Wow, yeah.

Shola Lynch:  This has never been a TV show for me.  The thought has always been that this is about getting a film on the big screen.  So what’s happening now is well, truthfully, beyond my dream.

Zeinabu Davis:  That’s great!  I’m really proud of you and happy for you that this release is   happening.  You’re breaking ground by having BET and Overbrook and Roc Nation be partners with you on the film.  And I was surprised because for most people, I still think Angela is a very controversial subject.

Shola Lynch: Right.

Zeinabu Davis: You know, so I’m just curious, why do you think that these celebrities or companies decided to support the film?

Shola Lynch: Well, I – you know, I have to say that BET took a huge risk, because they came in before the film existed.  So it’s like a trailer and an idea and, like, a proposal.   Loretha Jones and [Charlie Gordon Brookins?], and, of course, under the leadership of Deborah Lee, they had faith.  They put their money where their mouth was.  There were no celebrities attached, it was just Angela.  I think BET’s brand is unafraid of controversy.  For better or for worse, right?  

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, right.  

Shola Lynch: So they weren’t afraid of that.  They really allowed me the space as a filmmaker to make the film that I wanted to make.  Now, as we were getting close to finishing, it was close and the cost of licensing all of this footage was just – we didn’t have enough money.  So it was then, that I sent out a Hail Mary e-mail to everybody involved with the project.  Everybody who ever said, oh, girl, I can help you raise some money.  One of my friends from the neighborhood up in Harlem said, I think I can help you raise money, I know certain people.  She’s very well connected in the celebrity world, a world I am not a part of, right?  And she said, I think Jada would be into it, can I send it to her?  I said, yeah, you can send it to her, but honestly, you know, celebs are not going to attach themselves with such a controversial figure.  There’s no way, but why not?  And I think – and, and, and Jada’s response was like, “I’m in.  This is incredible.  I thought I knew this story.  People need to know this. “ What Jada liked about it,  is that it is about this powerful woman, and she’s also black, and it deals with  black history, but it’s also about power to the people.  You know, where’d that white farmer come from?  

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, I know that was a great surprise.

Shola Lynch:  There are all of these surprises in the story that make it very clear that, yes, this is a story about a black woman, but it is also a human story.  It is a story about justice more broadly.  Jada was like, I’m in, I’m down.  And I was like, really?  Oh, my God.  She’s been a woman of her word.  I mean, she brought her husband, Will Smith in.  And they brought, Jay-Z in.   I love the fellas, but it doesn’t happen without the ladies.  Let’s be clear on that.  It’s when women stand up for women’s stories that we’ll have more of them.  Because this would not happen without the women executives at BET – and then the distribution would not have happened without Jada standing up and using her celebrity power for good, you know what I mean?  

Zeinabu Davis: Wow.  That’s an inspiration right there.

Shola Lynch: The other thing is, I am – I think I get this from being an athlete – is I’m not afraid of being rejected, and I’m not afraid of “no.”  I will always ask for what I want.  The amazing thing that sometimes happens is you get it.  You know what I mean?  I’m not talking about being entitled, I’m not talking about being foolish, for instance, when BET came to me, I said, don’t waste my time.  You all are notorious for, like, chump change.  I need to finish this film.  Next year is the 40th anniversary of Angela’s acquittal.  Don’t waste my time.  Loretha Jones called me up directly after I said that, and said, Shola, we are serious.  We want you to make this film.  And she said, how much do you need?  I gave her the number.  She said, fine.  Let’s work it out.  I was like, whoa.  ‘Cause sometimes, you know, you do have to be direct.  

Zeinabu Davis: Sho nuff!

Shola Lynch:. I wasn’t kidding.  I was just, like, don’t waste my time!  I was so frustrated with the funding and things.

Zeinabu Davis: I know, I know, I know.  And it’s funny, ‘cause I – I just watched your Shirley Chisholm film again yesterday (Chisholm ’72: Unbossed and Unbought), and I’m thinking to myself, oh, I know Shirley would be so proud of you for just going out and saying that, that’s how she was.  [laughs]

Shola Lynch: Exactly.  That’s what history does for us.  When we know these stories, in a fuller way, not just facts, when the people, the characters are human beings, and they have positives and negatives and nuances to whatever their story was, then they become part of our family, and we get fortified by them.  I’m sure Shirley Chisholm influenced me and her ability to just be like, okay, I’m going to do this, you know? I’m going to ask.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Somebody says no to you?  Boo-hoo.  You know, find another way.  Don’t take it personally.  Make it happen.  You know, too many people are like, oh, I’ll never get this and then they never get their dreams off the ground.

Zeinabu Davis: That’s right.

Shola Lynch:. And honestly, then, they only have themselves to blame for that.  We have to find a way to be confident enough to follow through on the things that are really important to us.

Zeinabu Davis: Okay.  I hear you, that’s important advice for all of us whether or not we are filmmakers! I really appreciated the re-enactment scenes that you have in the film.

Shola Lynch: Thank you!!!


Zeinabu Davis: Oh, my God.  I was like, whoa.  I think you and Bradford Young came up with some really interesting choices, and the scene of Angela and George meeting in prison particularly moved me.  Could you talk about the process of coming up with the scenes that would be re-enacted and why you decided to use those?

Shola Lynch:. Well, yes.  I mean, in some ways it was very practical, because we don’t have footage of those moments.

Zeinabu Davis: Of course.

Shola Lynch: And every time we tried to use generic archival materials, it was so distracting and it didn’t fit emotionally.  So I knew that I wanted to create images – but I also knew that because of the way that the budget is put together, that I couldn’t make a movie. I wanted them to be, in a way, photographed impressions that gave you a sense of what was going on without, like, full scenes.   I knew they had to be edited in a non-linear way, and that really – and Bradford totally got what I was trying to do, and working together, we were able to elevate that completely.  I was really nervous, you know, to have my first foray into just creating dramatic images.  He was just wonderful to work with.  So I went for it, and together we created some really beautiful imagery that helps.  It doesn’t feel disconnected from the film, but it kind of helps move the emotional quality and the narrative for it.  

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, it does.  I have only watched it on the little screen; I can’t wait to see it on the big screen, ‘cause I’m tired of looking at it on my computer.

Shola Lynch: It’s spectacular.  That stuff, those scenes are particularly spectacular on the big screen.  

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah.  I can’t wait. I can’t wait to see it live and with an audience, you know, ‘cause I’m whooping and hollering when I’m watching the film.  I know my family thinks I’m crazy, but, okay.  I want to see it in a real theatre.  You know how black people do.  We’ll be talking through the movie. Yeah.  But, so the footage that’s of Angela in the classroom, is that your actress, or is that Angela?

Shola Lynch: Oh no.  That’s archival footage.  

Zeinabu Davis: Really!?

Shola Lynch: That’s archival footage from a French film – well, actually it’s an American film.  It’s a student who was at UCLA who happened just to be following Angela Davis because of the controversy around Ronald Reagan and her being a Communist.  Nobody knew the events would unfold in this way.  There was footage of her in the classroom, and on the campus.

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, I was like, wait, it does look like Angela, but this, some of this stuff is so evocative, you know, it’s got the same mood.  So I was like, I began to question it after a while.  And I’m like, wow.

Shola Lynch: No, all of our recreations are silhouettes.  

Zeinabu Davis: Right, yes.

Shola Lynch:. They’re very dark.  They’re suggestive of Angela rather than actually of her; because we didn’t have the money to make the movie.  That was not what we were trying to do.  This is a documentary.  So we wanted to create images that worked with the archival, that didn’t take you out of time and space, and were evocative of, of her and the feelings that we were trying to convey, you know, in that particular scene.  Working with Eisa Davis was just the best choice, because she knows her art so well, she’s an actress, number one, and she knows her aunt so well that she would be able to kind of capture her body and body movements.

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, totally.

Shola Lynch: In a way they’re subtle, but they work so well. It works because it’s in silhouette.  You know, like, if we were actually doing the movie, Angela at 26, we need a young woman.  But to train a young woman to transform herself into Angela Davis is a much larger project than we had time for.  You know what I mean?  So I knew it had to be more moody and evocative in the way that sometimes photographs can be.  

Zeinabu Davis: Speaking of evocative moments, one of the most touching moments for me in the film is when Angela is talking about the case, and that there’s a time that she has to be separated from Ruchell Magee. It’s like 40 years later, and you can see that she’s still so upset about it.  She looks like she’s fighting back tears, when she talks about that.  

Shola Lynch: Yeah.  I mean, her commitment to the justice issues and political prisoners is serious.  It wasn’t a fad.  It’s something she’s done her whole life, and she realizes that she was lucky because of the movement that was built around her.  She tried to leverage that movement to help other political prisoners.  It’s part of the reason why she didn’t want to sever the case, she knew that Ruchell would be treated in a different way, because there wasn’t the whole movement around Ruchell.  His experience was more typical of the experience of young black people who get caught up in the prison system and get stuck there, and things escalate.

Zeinabu Davis: Right, yeah.

Shola Lynch: He’s still in prison today.

Zeinabu Davis: Whoa.  Wow.

Shola Lynch: So, I’m sure in a way, I mean, I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I’m sure in a way what she has is survivor guilt. You know, I’m sure she has guilt that she has been freed and there are so many people that have not.  Let me say this is not a question of guilt or innocence, right, because in a way what the story tells us, is that justice is not always just about guilt or innocence. Meaning that she was innocent, and she could have very well been convicted.

Zeinabu Davis: Right, no.  I totally understood what you meant.

Shola Lynch: Yes, not that she was guilty and she got out.  I don’t think that.  I think, in fact, and you know, I wondered going in what I would find, and I was open to everything.  I do feel like the verdict was a just verdict.  But the right verdict.  

Zeinabu Davis: One of the things that I found really interesting about the film, too, was how you tell the story.  You know, you don’t go the typical conventional documentary route  and have a bunch of historians or experts, tell the story.  You use people who are close to Angela to tell the story, particularly, her childhood friends, Margaret and Bettina.  Those are the ones that actually say what happened when the verdict is announced.  I thought that was brilliant, to make that as a choice. I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you decided to go that route.

Shola Lynch: Well, first of all, there are no experts, because historians have written nothing on this.  So in a way the film is like original research. It’s like original scholarship.  It’s digging deeper into a story we think we know.  Secondly, when you have access to the people that lived it, why not use their voices?  Weave them together in a way that each individual voice creates a larger sense of truth and wholeness.  I think that there is something beautiful in that.  I always think of Thanksgiving dinner when I think of filmmaking.  When you sit down at Thanksgiving dinner, you have all kinds of generations, and they all talk in different ways, and they like to tell stories, etc., and you’re a youngster, and all these old people, you’re like, ugh, boring.   Then you get to some age in your life. Wow, did someone’s aunt so-and-so just say she was a Black Panther?  You hear the stories, and they become alive, because they’re part of who we are as a nation, as a culture, and they’re the kind of the griot human element of the storytelling, when it’s told by folks that haven’t gotten it all down pat.  You know what I mean?

Zeinabu Davis: Right, yeah. On that note, I was so happy to see and hear from Angela’s sister, Fania.  She’s so articulate and beautiful; she’s really compelling on the screen.

Shola Lynch: Isn’t she, isn’t she?  I wish there had been room to interview everybody in the family. But, you know, I love the sister connection, and I love it when Angela is unavailable and in prison, and her sister steps up to be the Angela surrogate, and travels all over the world for her, there’s something really beautiful in the family relationship.  I mean, the film is not about family, but family is so present in it, that the families who come from her, and how many times do we see stories about black families?  While the film is not being promoted as a story about black families [laughs], it’s a strong element.

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah. Right, exactly.


Shola Lynch: So the overarching theme is that it’s a political crime drama with a love story in the middle.

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, I like you talking about it as a political crime drama.  That’s going to hook a lot of people who might not necessarily come see it into it.

Shola Lynch: It’s not supposed to be a dry something with facts.  It is a story and it has a narrative, and it will take you somewhere.  It’s up to you to decide whether you agree with the choices that she makes, it’s up to you to decide whether you like her or not.  I’m not interested in any of that.  I just want to tell a really good story about a woman who you see finding her power, which, to me, is powerful.  You know, it doesn’t matter whether I agree with all her choices, or any of that.

Zeinabu Davis: That’s a very strong statement.  I’m glad that you’re making that point.  I think it is important for all of us to think about and interrogate, talk about it.

Shola Lynch: The take-away is up to you.  I’m not going to try and tell you how to feel about it.  But I want to show you the process, the process of seeing this woman, and the repercussions and the results, and – in terms of politics, and in terms of her individual choice, you know, it’s been – so it’s layered.  It was a very complicated story to tell.  But also, you don’t feel any of that when you watch. [laughs]

Zeinabu Davis: Okay.  You, Angela and Jada in some cases are touring with the film and speaking to audiences.  Who have been some of your favorite audiences, and what are some of the audience reactions to the film?

Shola Lynch: I have to say that I have just loved the audiences.  When you show up at the theater, and it’s sold out, and people are rushing to get in, it’s a really great feeling for a filmmaker.  Then at the end of the film, for the audience to often give Angela a standing ovation, but also to be so moved by the film itself, is incredible.  If people come out because they want to see celebrities and they want to meet Angela, that’s fine, as long as they watch the film.  [laughs]  Jada has been very generous to use her celebrity for good.  There are a lot of celebrities that don’t do that. I am very grateful that she’s shown up for this project.  Stood up and shown up for this project.  You can’t complain at all about that.

Zeinabu Davis: Is it different, though, seeing it with, like, European audiences than with American audiences?

Shola Lynch: Oh, my God, yes.  In Europe, Angela Davis is a rock star.  They love their intellectuals.  So people come out, it was standing room only in France.  [laughs] More people rushing in, and at one screening, a group of young people rushed in and staged a protest against the theater for being too bourgeois and not having enough young people and people of color being able to buy tickets; something like that.  I couldn’t have scripted it better, right?  

Zeinabu Davis: Oh, wow.

Shola Lynch: In the U.S., people are turning out, but they don’t know what to expect and they don’t know as much about her story.  Whereas the Europeans, especially, the socialists and communists, so the folks on the left, they’ve had so little to celebrate lately that Angela Davis showing up is just like something!

Zeinabu Davis: Okay.  Right. [laughs]

Shola Lynch: Yeah.  But we don’t have a communist or a socialist party here, really.

Zeinabu Davis:  So that’s very different.  What are your hopes for the film at – for the release next week?  Who do you want to see it and why?

Shola Lynch: Listen.  Oh, gosh.  Oh, that’s hard.  Oh, that’s a hard question!

Zeinabu Davis: [laughs]

Shola Lynch: Because the fact is, there’s not a who, necessarily.  I don’t want to limit the audience, you know what I mean?  I made the film for me, and I’m a woman, and I’m black.  A black woman.  So I feel like, this is for women of color and it is for women.  It’s an example of seeing somebody find their power.  Women will bring their partners and boyfriends and husbands and kids.  Hopefully the film is constructed in a way that whether you know who she is or you don’t, it’s a good story, and it leaves you with something to think about.

Zeinabu Davis: In your press materials, it stated that Angela saw the Chisholm film, and that was a part of why she agreed to do the project.  Can you talk a little bit about how you got her to be a part of the project?

Shola Lynch: Oh, yeah.  Well, one, I knew I wasn’t going to tell the story without her.  That was, like, I wasn’t interested in that.  Her voice had to be part of the telling of her story.  It sounds obvious, but you know, it doesn’t always work out that way.  I wrote e-mails, and letters, and blah, blah, blah, how I was able to do it twofold, it’s more that I was able to get access to people that were close to her, and convince them first.  That is a little bit different from Chisholm.  I had to go directly to Chisholm.  But this was, you needed to get through Angela’s gatekeepers first.  I don’t think it was anything I said – my pitch or anything like that.  I really believe it was when she finally sat down and made the time to watch the Chisholm documentary, which I sent her multiple copies of, because she kept losing them.

Both: [laughter]

Shola Lynch: I mean, they would get lost in the stack of things she had to do.  It was just like, all right, let me just send another one.  She finally saw it, and after that, she said, let’s meet.  Then what she said was, “I thought I knew her (Shirley Chisholm’s) story.”  But it’s the way she said it, made me realize that she was also saying that about herself and her story.  Then she said I will consent to an interview and she gave me an opportunity, basically.  So at that point, she was on board.  I had creative control, because she had to trust me, and I don’t think she could have trusted me without the previous work. In other words, that it was going to be a serious history.  In other words, that I wasn’t just going to paint her – put her up on a pedestal or paint her as a commie devil.  I really was interested in telling a good history.  Telling a story, and telling it in a compelling way.  Because imagine if you lived this life, and you had all of these strong feelings about it, and then you watched a film that sucks.  How disappointing is that? Why put yourself through the agony?

Zeinabu Davis: Right, exactly.

Shola Lynch:.  So I felt, I felt the responsibility to at least create a film that I liked.  It just took a long time.  I mean, there were points where I would have loved to have quit.  You know, and  put out into  the world a half-baked idea and it would have been okay, because people would have been like, well, it’s a film about Angela.  But I couldn’t – I didn’t want to, I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.  

Zeinabu Davis: Right, I hear you.

Shola Lynch: I had to see it through to a film that I liked, and it just took a while.

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah.  Well, they always do. [laughs] They always do, right?  Yep.  

Shola Lynch:. It’s true.  But I think it was the work that convinced her.  I don’t think it was anything else, because certainly I didn’t have a personal relationship with her.  People are like, do you know her? Are you part of the family? I’m like, no.
Zeinabu Davis: Well, I’m glad that she trusted you with the story and that you honored her, you know, in such a powerful way with it, so thank you.

Shola Lynch: And let me say, it’s not the story she would tell in the way she would tell it.  But at the same time, she didn’t ask me to change anything. You know, if she had told that story, it would have far more of the context and the politics and the movement, and less of her personal story.  So she would have diminished the relationship with George. She probably wouldn’t have included the kinds of the things that, in a way, humanize her.  She’s a young woman.  You know.  This was who her love was at the time.  

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, I totally get it.  But that’s why it’s a film.  It’s not a book and it’s not a talk. It has to stand up in a different type of way, you know?

Shola Lynch: Yes, exactly.  So I like to say this is her life, and she goes, well, no, it’s your movie.

Both: [laughter]

Shola Lynch: Just to make clear the distance, you know? She’s an academic, she understands that intellectually.  You know?  It’s not like she’s calling me up all the time trying to control the whole production.  Honestly, she just gave me an opportunity, and I would send her e-mail updates every six months for eight years.  [laughs]

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, right.

Shola Lynch:. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Zeinabu Davis: Hey, no, but I feel you, I know what you’re talking about.  I teach at UCSD, and a question that I get from my students is how do you balance being a mom and a filmmaker? Like, they don’t see that as a possibility, and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that.  

Shola Lynch: Whoo!  Um, you know, it’s interesting, my husband and my children have never known me not working on this Angela Davis project.

Zeinabu Davis: Wow.

Shola Lynch: Never, yeah.  I met my husband when I was thinking about it as an idea,  and he’s like, literally, through the dating process and marriage and kids – our whole relationship has happened within the time of making this film.  My kids, think Angela Davis is my friend – they’re like, oh, wait, you know, Angela.  They see her name all the time.  They see her image around the house.  You know, all that stuff, so it’s interesting.  I have been committed to this project, so when I start something I have to see it through.  I feel that way about parenting, and I think that I’ve been lucky to have a good partner, who really is a partner.  And so, you know, commitments ebb and flow.  It’s a balancing act, and what I mean is all these things are important.  In some weeks parenting takes precedence, and on some weeks and days filmmaking takes precedence.  That also includes  my husband’s career and his needs out in the world.  I try and talk to my children as much as possible so they feel part of the process.  So they know that Mommy, Daddy, and the kids are the team, and we are going to be team players, you know?  Some days it’s going to be about them, and then some days it’s going to be about them being good so Mommy and Daddy can do X, Y, and Z.  Kids think, they understand, if you tell them what’s going on – they will play along; it’s all fun for them.  

Zeinabu Davis: Right, exactly.  

Shola Lynch: They will play along. Is it always perfect?  No.  Do I wish there was more time in a day?  Yes.  Is it hard?  Yes.  But is it worthwhile?  Absolutely. But there is no one easy answer, I’ll tell you that. [laughs]

Zeinabu Davis: No, there isn’t.  I think sometimes people think it’s cut and dried, you know, that okay, you do this and then you do that.  It’s just like what you said.  There are some days where, you know, you don’t do any kind of filmmaking.  There are some weeks when you don’t do any kind of filmmaking. It’s like, okay, well, that’s just the way it is, you know?

Shola Lynch: Mm-hmm, exactly.  That’s absolutely true.  I am just so lucky that in the downtimes when I wasn’t raising money or wasn’t able to be working on the film, that’s when the kids would take precedence – and so it is an ebb and a flow.  It’s constantly keeping your eyes open about who needs what when and shifting the priorities.  Daily, weekly, hourly and then to not feel bad about it.  Like, my workday often has to end at 5:30 when I have to go pick up my daughter at school.  So that’s what I have to do.  I can’t beat myself up over it to get what I can get done, and I have to be realistic about my goals.  This is where being a producer helps.  You have to produce your life.  It’s not just your work life.  You have to be realistic about what you can accomplish.  If you’re realistic and you can reach those goals, then you feel like, okay, I’m doing it.  It might take a little bit longer than somebody else, but because you have to be so efficient, it may happen a little bit faster.

Zeinabu Davis: That’s so true.  Sometimes all you get is an hour, maybe a half an hour.   But I’m amazed at what I can get done in that time; it sure wasn’t like that before I had kids!

Shola Lynch: [laughs].

Zeinabu Davis: Yeah.  Before I had kids, it would take me two hours to do it.  Now, I have a half an hour, it’s going to get done in a half an hour.  [laughs] So, it’s like, okay.  Yeah. Totally. Thank you so much.

Shola Lynch:. No problem.  Thank you.  I mean, Shadow and Act has been so good to us.  Like, everybody – all of you.  So thanks for writing about the film, and taking different points of view.  I appreciate that.

Zeinabu Davis: Oh, no, you know, the pleasure is mine, and just thank you for sticking with it and getting it done because I know, as a filmmaker, that it wasn’t easy. I wanted to do this interview with you because I can’t let another person who’s not a filmmaker do this, to talk to you about it.  If we write our own stories, I know the kinds of questions and I know the kinds of things that you may have gone through with it, and it’s important for me to make sure that that get out and that people understand what that’s about.

Shola Lynch:  I appreciate that. And you asked earlier what I hoped for.  I hope for a good box office.  I’m tired of people telling me there’s no audience for stories about women and no black women, especially.  You know what I mean?  I’m so sick of that.  There’s more than one black audience for sure, and even this is broader than just a Black audience.  I think this also attracts a more diverse audience.

Zeinabu Davis:  Well, you’re doing it.  I mean, you did it with the Chisholm film.  When I went to Target, and I saw Chisholm was available for sale, I was like, what?  It was like, a black – a black documentary by a sister in the big-box stores?  I was like, whoa.  So you are continuing to break ground for us, and I just want you to know that it is appreciated.

Shola Lynch: Thank you.  I appreciate it.  Sometimes I wonder whether it’s all worth it [laughs].

Zeinabu Davis: I know, I know.  I hear you.  But it is, it is.   And we might not tell you, we might not tell you enough, but just know that it is, and you are appreciated.

Shola Lynch: Thanks for that.


Zeinabu irene Davis is an independent filmmaker and Professor of Communication at University of California, San Diego.  Her current work-in-progress is a feature length documentary, Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema at UCLA

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Comments

marie-francoise

What a wonderful inspiring piece! All aspects were delved into… idea, process, production and finally getting your 'baby' out in the world. I'm sure the doc is amazing but this interview was insightful all on its own. Thank you shadow & act for making this forum possible…

As a mother and a filmmaker/actress I especially appreciated the conversation about being a mom and being an artist. It felt very hopeful and positive. I also really loved when Shola said: "I’m tired of people telling me there’s no audience for stories about women and no black women, especially. You know what I mean? I’m so sick of that." ME TOO!! I was fortunate enough to meet Shola many years ago in Minnesota at an IFP event right after her first doc came out and she was friendly and approachable. I've also had the huge good fortune to know and work with the inimitable Dr. Zeinabu irene Davis — thank you sis for providing such a thought-provoking in depth interview! I'm off to see the film this weekend :)

Lia

This interview is so inspiring, full of true creative wisdom…

Bee

Great interview. Can't wait to see this!

Terri Francis

Wow wow what a beautiful beautiful interview. Thank you so much! Yes, power to the people.

Charles David Brooks, III

It is difficult to read page 5. Did she talk about Angela days in Brooklyn, NY?

T.

Oh, my, my, my!!!! What a beautiful interview. I felt like I was listening…watching two great sistahs who have been on the journey and decided to share some of the "inside story" about filmmaking!!! What a pleasure and an honor—to you both. The interview flowed so well–just the right amount of questions and the questions perfectly asked which gave us a wealth of info in Shola's answers. Thank you. I liken this interview to a "page turner" in a great work of literature…with each advance to the next page, I wanted more! I was touched by the analogy of a Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, we have those in our families who don't know how much breadth and depth they have to tell us. The true griots. The main theme of the film is not so much about family—well for me–it is rooted in family and relationships. I don't believe Ms. Davis would have survived without her family. The inclusion of the family relationships was really a plus in reading this interview. I can go on and on and on. And I will. I will tell every person of interest about this interview and about the documentary. Again, thank you. Well done. And shout outs to all who made the film possible. What a gift to us all!

urbanauteur

Big shut out 2 you,Zeinabu, and @ Ohio(film dept) Univ-John Butler-Mabel Haddock-Robert Banks,jr..;-)

Sergio

FANTASTIC interview!

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