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 Angela—which has been eight years in the making—seems 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 select theaters nationwide.
Lynch, who made her directorial debut with the award-winning Chilshom ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, says that Free Angela & All Political Prisoners was inspired by the questions she had surrounding the world-famous activist.
“She was a 26-year-old philosophy professor. How and why did she become an international political icon? How is that possible?” 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.
“This is an experience that hundreds of thousands of people have had,” Lynch says. “I realized that we couldn’t really tell you why we knew her. We knew she was important, but what’s the story?”
Free Angela & All Political Prisoners opens with a silhouette of Davis’ 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 Davis’ 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.
“It actually turned out to be a political crime thriller with a love story in the middle of it,” Lynch says. “Who knew?”
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). George’s 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 Davis’ name, setting off a chain of events that indubitably changed the course of her life—and making for a very complicated love story.
Lynch says that Davis’ relationship with George was central to the story because the prosecutor in Davis’ trial, the late Albert Harris Jr., then assistant district attorney, built his case around it.
“His whole theory of the crime was that she was a woman in love, almost crazily in love,” Lynch says. “So she masterminded a plot to kidnap a judge, in exchange for her lover, who was in prison.”
Lynch stops short of describing George as Davis’ 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 offers—including Davis’ surprisingly limited involvement with the Black Panther Party—there is one question that remains unanswered: How did Jonathan get his hands on Davis’ guns? Lynch finds the question interesting, as she says audiences haven’t really fixated on that detail. She says there are two theories, and one was the prosecutor’s suggestion that Davis was the mastermind who gave Jonathan the guns. The defense’s 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, it’s up to audiences to look at the evidence and come to their own conclusions.
“You have two competing theories of the crime, and it’s left to the jury to decide which is true,” Lynch says. “I present it in the way that the jury would have been presented with the information.”
Lynch says there are many details to the story, but “as filmmaker, as a historian, and as a storyteller, there’s not one detail left out that would change the narrative.”