When filmmaker Shola Lynch appeared in the December 2006 issue of Black Enterprise, her Angela Davis documentary, Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, then in the works, only warranted a one-sentence mention at the very end of the article. Fast forward to the present, and Free Angelaâwhich has been eight years in the makingâseems to have taken on a life of its own. Marquee names such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z are attached to the film, and on Friday it is being released in selectÂ theatersÂ nationwide.
Lynch, who made her directorial debut with the award-winningÂ Chilshom â72: Unbought & Unbossed, says that Free Angela & All Political Prisoners was inspired by the questions she had surrounding the world-famous activist.
âShe was a 26-year-old philosophy professor. How and why did she become an international political icon? How is that possible?â asks Lynch, who wrote and directed the film.
Lynch admits that while she had an Angela Davis T-shirt, she had heard Davis speak at an event, and knew that Davis was once chased by the FBI, that was the extent of her knowledge of the political icon.
âThis is an experience that hundreds of thousands of people have had,â Lynch says. âI realized that we couldnât really tell you why we knew her. We knew she was important, but whatâs the story?â
Free Angela & All Political Prisoners opens with a silhouette of Davisâ iconic afro, and goes on to show her rise to an international political figure through interviews, old footage, recordings, photography, sketches, letters, files, and reenactments. The film follows Davisâ story through the early seventies, from the controversy surrounding her appointment as a philosophy professor at the University of California to being on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list to standing trial for murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy.
âIt actually turned out to be a political crime thriller with a love story in the middle of it,â Lynch says. âWho knew?â
The love story, one of several surprising aspects of the film, shows the romance that formed between Davis and George Jackson, one of the “Soledad Brothers” (Davis was an outspoken advocate for the release of the Brothers, three unrelated California inmates who were being charged with the death of a prison guard, and whom she considered political prisoners). Georgeâs younger brother, Jonathan, who was a friend of Davis, led a botched kidnapping of a judge that left four people dead. The guns used in the kidnapping attempt were registered in Davisâ name, setting off a chain of events that indubitably changed the course of her lifeâand making for a very complicated love story.
Lynch says that Davisâ relationship with George was central to the story because the prosecutor in Davisâ trial, the late Albert Harris Jr., then assistant district attorney, built his case around it.
âHis whole theory of the crime was that she was a woman in love, almost crazily in love,â Lynch says. âSo she masterminded a plot to kidnap a judge, in exchange for her lover, who was in prison.â
Lynch stops short of describing George as Davisâ boyfriend or saying that they were in love, but the documents in the film, including love letters between the two, speak for themselves.
For all the insights that the film offersâincluding Davisâ surprisingly limited involvement with the Black Panther Partyâthere is one question that remains unanswered: How did Jonathan get his hands on Davisâ guns? Lynch finds the question interesting, as she says audiences havenât really fixated on that detail. She says there are two theories, and one was the prosecutorâs suggestion that Davis was the mastermind who gave Jonathan the guns. The defenseâs argument was that Davis would not be so dense as to plan a kidnapping and then give someone guns that were registered in her name.
Because no one could say they witnessed Jonathan taking the guns, itâs up to audiences to look at the evidence and come to their own conclusions.
âYou have two competing theories of the crime, and itâs left to the jury to decide which is true,â Lynch says. âI present it in the way that the jury would have been presented with the information.â
Lynch says there are many details to the story, but âas filmmaker, as a historian, and as a storyteller, thereâs not one detail left out that would change the narrative.â