Angela Davis, in reality, has been free from jail since 1972. But that was a generation ago and filmmaker Shola Lynch in her riveting documentary “Free Angela Davis (And All Political Prisoners)” recounts those turbulent times when Davis was hunted, captured, and tried for her alleged involvement in a shootout in a courtroom in San Rafael, California in 1970.
Using what amounted to costly fragments of archival film footage, reenactments, and interviews, particularly with Davis, Lynch has woven a vivid tapestry of the social and political turmoil in which the key adversaries the Black Panther Party and law enforcement agencies were in mortal combat. Davis, a member of the Communist Party, became connected to the Panthers and from her association with Jonathan Jackson was soon on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.
Jackson, the 17-year-old brother of the imprisoned George Jackson, entered the courtroom armed with a shotgun and other weapons which were distributed to two other convicts on trial. “We are the revolutionaries,” Jackson announced and they grabbed several hostages, including Judge Harold Haley.
Through stills, Lynch dramatically captures this incident in which Jackson, along with the two convicts (William Christmas and James McClain), the prosecutor, and one juror were killed as they tried to escape in a van. Another convict Ruchell Magee was wounded and later would stand trial with Davis before their cases were separated. It was a bold action that stunned the nation and embarrassed court security—so much so that the hostages and the judge had to be sacrificed.
The guns confiscated from the incident were registered in Davis’s name and thus she was an immediate suspect that put her on the run.
For nearly two months, Davis eluded capture, and it is during this phase that Lynch utilizes to provide the biographical background that began for Davis in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944. An immaculate scholastic sojourn culminated in a Ph.D. degree in philosophy from the University of Frankfurt in Germany.
It was during her tenure at the University of California, Los Angeles that she gained national notoriety. Her membership in the Communist Party prompted Gov. Ronald Reagan to pressure the state’s Board of Regents to fire Davis in 1969. When a judge overruled the firing the Regents resumed their attack on her and she was subsequently fired for “inflammatory language” during many of her activist speeches.
Last week at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem, Lynch expressed some of the challenges she faced making the film, “which I was finally able to complete after eight years,” she said during a question and answer period with her husband, Vincent Morgan.
“I wanted to do this film because of who Angela Davis was,” she said, when asked what inspired her to tackle this project after her rewarding documentary on Shirley Chisholm in 2004. “I didn’t know a lot about her but I knew she was controversial and I wanted to know more about her.”
Lynch’s pursuit of Davis not only deeply informed her about this radical intellectual but she has also sculpted a winning image of a woman who continues at 70 to be passionately concerned about the prison industrial complex from which she finally and fully eluded with her acquittal in 1972.
Perhaps the most remarkable scenes in the documentary are those that graphically detail the shootout that left Jackson and the others dead. Rewarding, too, is Lynch’s delicate attention to the love affair between Davis and George Jackson, an affair that existed mainly through letters, though in the film there is a shadowy reenactment of the one time they were together.
There is no telling how long the film will be in town at several AMC screens, so if you’re interested in reliving a period of American history—especially from a Black radical perspective, about a woman of unshakable conviction and defiant political commitment—then you’re in for a real and reel treat because Lynch has done a splendid job of putting those moments without blinking right in front of your eyes.
Photo: Donnette Dunbar