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Forty years after the high-stakes trial that catapulted 26-year-old scholar and Marxist feminist Angela Davis into the spotlight as a revolutionary icon, Shola Lynch’s 2012 documentary, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” relives those transformative years of Davis’ life. It’s quite a journey: Even as she was branded a terrorist, Davis spurred a worldwide political movement for her freedom. The portrait of that story reignites discussion on the radical movement she joined and eventually led, and it still holds the power to inspire a new generation to similar acts of collective progressivism, all in the name of political and social reforms.
“Terrorist” is far from the only label Davis has faced over the years: activist, intellectual, inspiration, and fearless leader all came up — as did communist and African American. For those in power at the time — and for many today as well — all those elements combined spell “dangerous,” which explains the political conspiracy to silence her by any means necessary.
In October 1970, Davis was arrested in New York City in connection with a shootout that occurred on August 7 in a San Raphael, California courtroom. She was accused of supplying weapons to Jonathan Jackson, who burst into the courtroom in a bid to free inmates on trial — the Soledad Brothers — and take hostages whom he hoped to exchange for his brother George Jackson, a Black radical imprisoned at San Quentin.
In the subsequent shootout with police, Jonathan Jackson was killed, along with Judge Harold Haley and two inmates. Davis, who had championed the cause of organizing Black prisoners and was friends (and later became romantically involved) with Jackson, faced an indictment for the crime because the guns used in the shootout were registered to her. She went into hiding, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals — and only the third woman to be put on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list — and was apprehended only two months later. Eighteen months after her trial drew international attention, in June 1972, she was acquitted of all charges.
“Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” doesn’t put Davis back on trial; instead, it tells the story of an injustice done to a young Black woman whose life changed completely after she was thrust into the spotlight when then-California Governor Ronald Reagan insisted on barring her from teaching at any university in the State of California due to her membership in the Communist Party. She was a twentysomething Black woman who would become an example for the government under Nixon’s presidency to demonstrate its intolerance for radicalism. The embodiment of a constructed imaginary enemy, she would soon become the central spokesperson for the freedom of all political prisoners.
Needless to say, the documentary’s title doesn’t lie: After a brief introduction to Davis, it doesn’t waste much time diving right into its main subject. The movie covers a trial that occupied almost two years of her life, from August 1970 when she went underground, after she learned she would be implicated in the courthouse incident, to her acquittal in June 1972. There’s enough material here to fuel a miniseries, with its wealth of characters and subplots unfolding against the backdrop of the burgeoning anti-establishment and anti-Vietnam war movements, after the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, the rise of the Black Panther Party, the Watts riots, and the second Red Scare still lingering.
There’s only so much one can squeeze into a 97-minute documentary, but it does a solid job of giving the audience a sense of the setting, the era, the key figures involved, and all the central elements that contributed in some way to the film’s main focus.
The sense of the uncertainty and paranoia that plagued the country at the time is palpable. Footage includes ample archival tape and present-day interviews with Davis herself, her sister, mother, and attorneys that represented her during the trial, journalists who covered the trial, Black Panther party members, and more. Where no archival footage exists, key moments are recreated with the help of “Selma” cinematographer Bradford Young. Those images are complimented by a robust soundtrack, including music from the controversial 1960 album “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.”
As the movie continues along its swift pace, it touches on many timely matters, including systemic racism and the rising levels of incarceration and poverty within the Black community. It took a worldwide movement to acquit Davis on June 4, 1972, just over 48 years ago today. But the most remarkable fact to come out of this troubling drama goes beyond Davis’ specific accomplishments. Instead, it’s that an all-white jury acquitted a young Black radical in the early 1970s on all charges, despite unrelenting attempts by the government to discredit and vilify her. It offered some measure of hope for the future.
Since her acquittal, Davis has dedicated her life to a range of activist issues, from women’s rights to labor movements. She was one of the first public figures to highlight the struggles of imprisoned women, especially violence against women in prison, and to bring awareness to the issue of women of color becoming the fastest-growing prisoner population today.
“Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” doesn’t add much new information to existing histories of Davis’ story. However, at this decisive moment in American history, it serves as a call to action capable of inciting new generations to similar acts of collective radicalism, all in the name of progressive change.
“Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” is streaming on Vudu.