In August, 1970, a judge in California’s Marin County courthouse charged Angela Davis—a brilliant young philosophy professor at the state university—with murder. The charges derived from an incident at the same courthouse: a 17-year-old kid, bursting into the building with a shotgun, had attempted to free three black prisoners, taking a judge hostage and prompting a shootout, in the parking lot, that saw himself and four others die. The young man carrying out the attack, Jonathan Jackson, was the kid brother of George Jackson, the imprisoned author of a potent memoir, Soledad Brother, whose excoriation of the racist US prison system had made him a hero of the day’s black radical movement—and a cherished correspondent, and friend, of Ms Davis. At the time, Davis was already in the news—California’s governor, Ronald Reagan, had had her fired from the university for her outspoken leftism. She was indicted, on trumped-up charges, of conspiring with Jackson and buying him guns for the attack; the charges’ penalty, if proved, was death. Davis’ ensuing flight from the authorities, and two-year fight to clear her name, made the afro-ed activist one of her era’s great political figures—and the subject, this year, of Shola Lynch’s exemplary film on Ms Davis’s story in those years. Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, after winning raves at Sundance and Toronto, had its Caribbean premiere at the trinidad+tobago film festival.
Lynch’s visit to T&T, as she told me after the film’s sold-out screenings at Movietowne, was a homecoming of sorts: her father, the historian Hollis Lynch, is from Tobago. Shola, for her part, grew up in New York. She spent part of her childhood on Sesame Street, before setting national age-group records, on the track, as a gifted runner in her teens. After college in Texas, injury ended her Olympic hopes. But a chance encounter, back home in New York, led Lynch to a new vocation. Learning her craft at the side of Ken Burns, Lynch served as a lead researcher—and lead digger-in-archives—on such grand documentaries as Burns’ Jazz. Her own first film, Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, traced the historic run for the presidency of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress—and led to her second feature project, which weaves together fresh interviews and often stunning archival footage, much of it never before seen, to illumine its essential story for a new generation.
After its triumphant launch last winter, Free Angela was immediately picked up for theatrical distribution in the USA. That Free Angela is the first feature documentary by a black woman to do so, is its own comment on the lasting iniquities her film’s subject fought. However, as I found chatting with Shola—who was recently appointed curator of moving images at Harlem’s esteemed Schomburg Centre—at the Port of Spain Hyatt last September, that is the least of her sources of pride in a project, she said, “she couldn’t not do.”
– Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: Tell me about the genesis of this project. It’s your second film about postwar US history, and about the role of black women whose names, perhaps, are better known than their stories. How did you come to these subjects? Were you always a history buff?
Shola Lynch: Well you know my father is a historian—he taught at Columbia. But I actually didn’t learn very much history from him; he’s West Indian, you know; British-trained—impossible, basically. [Laughs.] Which isn’t to criticise. But my own interest in history didn’t come until college. I can remember reading Paula Giddings’ book [Where and When I Enter] during freshman year—that moment, you know, of entering black women’s history. And I remember writing in the margin, alongside this section about Shirley Chisholm and her running for president. “Why did you do that?” I wrote. I didn’t get it. I was an athlete, you know; you do things to win. Why’d she run for president? And that’s how I got into filmmaking, really.
The first film wasn’t just about Shirley Chisholm, the First Black Woman in Congress; it’s about that specific story—about her running for president. And it came from that curiosity to fill in the gaps, but also just from being attracted, I think, to people whose choices I don’t understand.
JJS: So when did you know your next project would be about Angela Davis?
SL: Well you know people kept asking me, what are you going to do next? And my first response was, anything but a story about a black woman! [Laughs.] But Angela Davis just kept coming up. Somebody would raise her story, or I would see her image somewhere. I just knew that it had to be my next film. I tried for it not to be—I thought, well, I’m just going to make a film on the Black Panthers, let me do Bobby Seale. But the universe didn’t work with me on that. [Laughs.] And not that I’m not so hocus-y pocus-y, but I was at Shirley Chisholm’s funeral, and there was this board of photographs of Shirley Chisholm, and in the corner was Angela. It wasn’t a picture of her and Shirley; somebody had stuck a picture of Angela Davis in this collage. And I felt like, okay, all right…
JJS: But that’s interesting, too, since one can so imagine someone putting her there—her image became so iconic not merely of the story of Angela Davis, but of black womanhood generally; of a whole era of political history.
SL: Yes, absolutely. But at that moment, it was for me just that feeling of: I have to embrace the fact that this is my next story. So I did. But then, of course, there was the whole job of getting Angela on board.
JJS: And how did that happen?
SL: Well, it took a long time. [Laughs.] She was really not feeling the idea of letting somebody else interpret her life. What convinced her, though, wasn’t anything I said, or that any of the people that I talked to said—because that’s what you do, of course; you talk with everybody in her life around her. Many of them were encouraging. But what convinced her, I think, was when she saw the Shirley Chisholm film. What she said was, “I thought I knew that story”—the way she said it, she could have been talking about her own story. About seeing how, as much as you think you know a story, even your own, in certain ways you can’t. Angela never got to sit down to talk with the FBI agent who chased her, you know. Or even, necessarily, with the people on her team; after she was freed, they weren’t like, let’s sit down and go through what happened. It was more like: “We got through it, let’s move on.” But with the collage of a film, all those perspectives—you can seen all that.
JJS: And that, of course, is the film you made: getting all these players to sit down and talk—the FBI agent who chased her; the lawyers who defended her; her friends; her sister Fania, who led the “Free Angela” campaign. The film is made up of their voices, and Angela’s—and, of course, this remarkable archival footage.
SL: It’s interesting, you know, because part of the process [of finding footage], here, was realising there aren’t as many images as I thought there would be. You can work on some films, and there’s just so much. But here—no. What you see is most of what we found. But it’s curated in a way, I hope, that it works with the narrative, so it feels like, “Oh my god, this is the most amazing stuff.” And some of it is and some of it isn’t, but it’s partially how it’s combined.
JJS: Part of this story’s power, though, is about how potent the images are—Angela’s story is so visual; it’s a story about images, in a way. But much of the footage you dug up here, we’ve never seen. You spent a lot of time, I imagine, at local TV stations in California.
SL: Yes, absolutely. What happens with the news, is that there’s a 30-second story or a minute-long story, but there’s a lot more shooting that happened. Often, the stories themselves are not kept; sometimes they disappear. But what’s left are all the outtakes. So, for instance, the Panther shootout in LA [in 1969], that footage of Angela showing up at the scene—it’s never been seen before. In the archive, it’s not labeled “Angela Davis”—its just labeled “lady with afro”, or “Black Panthers”, or whatever. So part of what we do, when we know that certain things happen, and we know the moments, is we get to know the story better than any of the commercial archives; we actually tell them what they have.
JJS: And you, by now, are especially practiced at sifting archives from that period—your first film was comprised of footage from that era, too. It’s a dramatic period in American history, of course, but also an amazing period visually.
SL: It’s interesting, I know; I’m always stuck in like ’72. [Laughs.] And in fact, Angela gets acquitted in June, and the [Democratic] convention [where Shirley Chisholm ran for president] is that summer, so I’m really in that era. But one thing that I like about it, that late ‘60s, early ‘70s time, is that though TV’s been around for a while, people don’t really have PR advisors yet; they really are themselves in the press, there’s a certain honesty. Even when Walter Cronkite does the news—it’s not so polished and uptight and vetted by lawyers. You get a sense of somebody’s personality. And I like that kind of dirtiness, realness. Even if you think about the way Hollywood actors looked, they looked…sweaty. [Laughs.] There was a sense that they weren’t so foreign to you; there’s not that huge divide, in people’s minds, between what regular people look like and what fancy people look like.
JJS: And the footage, of course, just looks different, too; it has a different feel.
SL: Right, because everybody still shoots on film. A little bit later in the ‘70s, there’s this move to video, which doesn’t hold up as well and looks crappy. And in terms of looking back, who wants to go to three-quarter-inch tape; ugly, stretched out video? This stuff’s still all on film.
JJS: And it’s so remarkable, watching this young woman, that poised and articulate, at 26, not to mention telegenic—I mean, Angela was a star. Sometimes you pause and just think of that—how young she was.
SL: Twenty-six! Right? What was that like, at 26? But you know, my favorite line in the whole film—or one of my two favorites—is Fania’s; something she says to one of the reporters when she’s in New York when Angela’s just been arrested, and the reporter is trying to grill her…
JJS: Yes! It’s marvelous; where she’s talking about education.
SL: Exactly. And she’s like, you know, “My sister is not a bad girl gone wrong. THIS is the raison d’etre for her education.” We have all these educated people who are me, me, me; money, money, money; but the raison d’etre for education is to make the world a better place. THIS is what her PhD is for, you know.
JJS: And Angela Davis, of course, was very much an intellectual—and a worldly one; she studied in Frankfurt with Herbert Marcuse, was steeped in continental philosophy. But part of what’s interesting about her story, too, once she’s locked up, is how it became not just an American story; her cause became a way for people around the world to take up the cause of American blacks as a way to think about justice everywhere.
SL: Yes, and you know, the footage in the film of Fania in France—leading those rallies, with thousands of people. Angela, even, hadn’t seen that footage. But that’s how it was. And you know, it’s amazing; she’s still received that way. In the US, we lasted three weeks [in theatres]. But in France, it’s just been tremendous. We opened in France the first week in April. We’ve only recently just finished up theatrical—it’s September now.
JJS: One of the distinctive things about how you’ve decided to tell this story is making the “love story”—Angela’s intense relationship with George Jackson—a central part of it. And part of the way you depict this, is through recreations. Tell me about deciding to do things that way; how you came to that decision, to do recreations.
SL: Well, it was a really difficult decision. Because recreations usually suck. I mean, usually they’re like, “Okay, now there’s like a shaky camera, and I can’t see anybody’s head—it’s a recreation.” And so I told everybody involved with this, including the DP, Bradford Young, and Eisa Davis, who we asked to play Angela—Eisa is Angela’s niece; she’s an actress and a playwright, extremely talented—I told them that if it sucks, I’m not using it. And they were all OK with that.
JJS: And the idea there, is that you’re creating the missing photos; the narrative beats that don’t have images.
SL: Right, right. It’s the images I wish I had. And I knew I didn’t have enough money to, like, design the scenes and make them like a movie, so they’re distinctly not [like a movie]. They’re impressions. They had to fit with the words, and be kind of emotional impressions which you could both know weren’t real, but also feel are real. So that’s what we went for.
JJS: And that’s about getting them to fit tone-wise—and they do.
SL: Yes! And it’s so gratifying to know, from people who watch it, that they have that sense of emotional truth. Kathleen Cleaver told me, when she saw it, she didn’t even realise those were recreations—which was great to hear. [Laughs.] Just that they didn’t take her out of the moment of the film, you know.
JJS: One other visual gap you have to fill in is the trial—and this, of course, is kind of the climax of the story; it’s a legal drama, after all.
SL: I was so worried about the trial. It was incredibly well-covered, of course; so we know what happened, you know. We have all this stuff; but no video.
JJS: There were no cameras in the courtroom. But there are the sketches.
SL: Right. And we were so lucky that there was one main artist that covered the whole trial, and she felt like it was a really important trial, so she preserved all of her drawings. And with that, once we got the rights, we really could tell the story with that material.
JJS: There are those great moments when someone you’re interviewing is describing, say, [defense attorney] Leo Brantin’s pose, with his hand in his suit-pocket, when he’s rhetorically asking the jury if they really expect to believe that “Angela Davis is stupid”—which she’d have to have been, he’s arguing, to buy those guns in her name, that the prosecution says were used to kill a judge. And then we have the sketch of that, of Brantin’s pose in the courtroom.
SL: Exactly. And in a way it worked so much better than if we had kind of animated that sequence, because they’re true to the moment. And it would never be the same if we’d faked that, by, like, getting our own courtroom; it would have felt less real.
JJS: Tell me about the music. I was struck by the decision not to use music from the time—Angela Davis was such a pop figure, in her way; that political era’s score was so potent, too.
SL: Well, where we started, you know, is with our temp music—and we hated our temp music. We had a lot of it, because temp music makes it easier to cut; it helps with editing. And there were sounds that I liked, but a lot of it can’t afford to license; it’s incredibly expensive. And I didn’t know what I would license, anyway. We tried pieces from that period, but they interrupted the story. Which is why I called Vernon Reid.
JJS: Vernon Reid, the great guitarist from Living Colour, who did the score.
SL: Yes. The sound that I kept hearing for Angela is guitar. And I thought, well, who plays guitar? [Laughs.] And I thought, hmm, Vernon Reid! I only knew about him through his work. So first of all, it was so interesting meeting him. I think of him as like, raahrrrrr!, you know; hard rock. But he’s a really intellectual guy, extremely thoughtful. So we just started to talk.
JJS: And you showed him bits of the film.
SL: Right, yes. He loved seeing the cuts. He processes words; loves to talk. Sometimes I had to say, “Vernon, stop. Just play the guitar!” [Laughs.] I had to scale him back a little. But we talked a lot about Angela’s theme song. In a movie your heroine or hero or main character has a theme song, that plays when she’s on screen. We talked about what the various scenes meant and all of that. For me, when I kept seeing Angela—she’s not a sentimental person; her song had to match that. And Vernon said, “Shola, I know you want the guitar, and I know you want it to be hard, but listen to this. I love this for Angela.” And he played that sweeter melody that then sometimes gets hard. And I couldn’t disagree with him. You hear it throughout the film.
And that’s what I love about the filmmaking process, where you’re working with people who are incredibly talented—it does become a collaboration. There’s nothing worse than getting exactly what you ask for.
JJS: Right: you ask people to work with you so they can bring their ideas to it.
SL: Exactly. For them to say—“I understand what you’re asking for, and because I’m expert in whatever this is, here’s what I have.” It elevates the story. And I think that that’s what Vernon’s music did. And Lewis Erskine, one of our two editors, has such a wonderful ear—he was really able to take the music and edit it into the piece, beautifully.
JJS: Speaking of film as a collaboration—the number one collaboration here, of course, is with your subject. With Angela. How do you think she felt about about the whole process? Did she value it, the experience?
SL: You know, I think she does now. I think she does now.
JJS: And did that come about from showing her the film? What was it like, the first time?
SL: I’ll never forget it. We were almost finished. It wasn’t the final cut. We were close. The music was still tentative; we hadn’t put it in. And I felt OK, it’s time. Because what we had negotiated—you know, it’s a negotiation [laughs]—she could see a cut. I had final cut—I’m not going to let someone dictate. But I would give her the opportunity to see the cut before it was locked, and kind of weigh in.
JJS: Give notes.
SL: Right. So I went out to Oakland. I was in some crappy hotel suite. The Best Western, or whatever. Because I needed the TV. And I brought my DVD player; I set it up. And she came early in the morning, before her yoga class, you know, with her giant green tea. And she said hello, and came in, and I pressed play. And I have never been sweatier. [Laughs.]
JJS: Just you and her in a room. That’s intense.
SL: Yeah. And so I put my chair back a little bit so that I could watch her watching it, you know. Just a little bit. She asked one question before we started: “Well, how long is it?” It was a little long; I said, “Close to two hours.” She goes, “Really?” [Laughs.] And then I pressed play.
And from the first frame her foot started nervously wagging. She did not remember or realise that I was doing recreation. And so she sees this afro-ed woman. She’s like, “I didn’t know you were doing that.” [Laughs.] So her foot starts wagging, and she sits forward. She gasps a few times. She was really moved at a couple of points. She didn’t cry, but I think she was really moved. I think that seeing the George story, but then also, as I say, seeing her sister in Europe. She’d never seen that footage before.
SL: It was. I mean, she knew [Fania] went. But it’s really something to see Fania with all of those people. And Angela and her sister had this running fight, you know. Fania really felt like there’s no way that Angela can be convicted, and Angela was like, you’re such a silly little sister, how can you feel that way? Angela’s experience was being shut up in a jail cell, alone, and terrified; struggling. George was killed; her friends locked up. But Fania’s experience was the movement, outside, this surging tide; this sense that freedom was coming. And she felt like there was no way Angela would lose.
But sitting there in the room with her; her foot wagging. I loved it. And afterwards, she said two things. “That didn’t feel as long.” [Laughs.]
JJS: Well, that’s good. That’s a total compliment.
SL: Yeah. [Laughs.] And then she said, “It was hard to watch.” And I’m sure it was—I mean, I can only imagine the running commentary in her mind, you know. But it was amazing, there. And what I said to her is, “This is your life.” And she goes, “Well, it may be my life, but it’s your film.” She was acknowledging that. But you know, the dynamic was almost what she’d say to a young graduate student: “I’ve approved the topic, and I’ll review it in that way.” But was this the way she would tell the story? No. Political crime drama with a love story? First, there would be no love story. [Laughs.]
JJS: Right, of course; for her, the public story would be thing; the system, politics.
SL: Yes, but I was surprised, you know—she didn’t ask me to take out anything. She didn’t ask me to skew it or cut any of the things that made her uncomfortable. She never inserted herself in the process. In fact her only comment, the only thing she asked me to change—which I did, because it was the only thing she asked—was to add Charlene Mitchell. One of the unsung heroes, you know, who she felt had been a really important part of the committee to save her. People in the Communist Party know who she is. I don’t think anybody else who watches really remembers that she’s in the film, but she’s there.
JJS: And Angela wanted her there.
SL: Yes, and that was easy to do. It wasn’t an issue. And I think, you know, as she’s been able to see the film with audiences—she’s let go a little bit of her anxiety. [Laughs.] Because you, know she’s also really a shy person.
JJS: Yes, one gains that sense, very much so, during her interviews in the film. She’s an amazing public speaker, of course, but one also always has the sense, watching her speak in front of her bookcase, that she’s most comfortable reading philosophy, doing her prison work; she’s a nerd, she’s an activist. That’s what she does.
SL: Exactly. And that’s where my other favorite line in the film comes—it’s Angela’s; it comes right near the end. The film, of course, doesn’t treat all the stuff she’s done since her trial—all her work on prison issues; as a scholar. And people have criticised that. But it wasn’t the story we were trying to tell. And what Angela says, essentially, about coming out of the trial, and all she’s done since, is just: “This is the way that we live our life.”
She’s saying the political work wasn’t just a phase; it’s not this extreme thing that you do for a year and then are burned out. It’s integrated into your life. And I hadn’t really thought of it that way—but that’s how she’s not become a crazy person. By keeping it going. You just keep it going, keep it going.
JJS: And that’s where the film ends; with that sense—which, I imagine, speaks to the process of this project, too.
SL: Absolutely, right. I’m not an activist, per se—my activism is telling stories. But as a filmmaker, I really relate to what she says, because it’s so easy to not make films unless you can figure out how to have it be part of your life, which is difficult. Because you know, it takes a long time. [Laughs.] I mean, this film took eight years. You can’t do it without running out of time, which is money, which is sad. At a certain point you will definitely run out. But then, you know, you can finish. You can get distribution. This [film] is in the awards conversation, so that’s great.
But what I hope with my films, is that an audience member comes away feeling like they got to know this person in a new way. That they come away feeling like this person has become part of their historical family; someone who’s story they can draw on, in certain moments. If you can do that, you’re doing alright. And this time, we’ve even paid off all the licensing—only just recently, but we have. [Laughs.] So you can’t beat that.