Reel Reviews | Free Angela and All Political Prisoners

Free Angela

On the latest episode of Reel Shorts, guest critic, Cynthia Fuchs of PopMatters reviews director Shola Lynch’s searing documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.

In Response to Some Threat

“A judge and three other persons were shot to death today in an attempt by a group of convicts to escape.” The date is 7 August 1970, and for a moment as he reports this story, Walter Cronkite appears on screen, which is to say, he appears as a television image nestled inside the frame provided by Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. Shola Lynch’s documentary here sets the scene for what happened then but also how it was imagined and represented then. As archival stills and TV footage show the Marin County Courthouse parking lot, police cruisers and gurneys, a standup reporter declares, “There are still a great many loose ends, a great deal of speculation… more persons involved in the bloody event.”

The questions and speculation, as you know, focused soon enough on Angela Davis, a professor at UCLA, recently fired when it emerged that she was a member of the Communist Party. Following the shooting, she was accused of purchasing the guns used by 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson and others, as they tried to free the Soledad Brothers, including Jonathan’s older brother George. The resulting disaster incited a kind of media frenzy that has since become de rigueur, over even the least significant events. It made headlines in newspapers and the nightly news, and held viewers’ attention for long weeks, as Davis “went underground.”

The movie tracks this story, partly by interviews with the parties involved—and primarily by an extended interview with Davis now—as well as footage and photos from the time. She provides some minimalist background for herself, describing a childhood in Birmingham, Alabama: “My father had guns in the house,” she remembers, “When they came out, we all knew that when they came out, generally it was in response to some threat.” This sets up her explanation of how she came to have purchased four guns, as she perceived a threat on her firing from UCLA, in the form of letters sent to her home and the university, calling her names and describing the punishment she could expect for being a Communist, not to mention being African American and a woman too. Soliciting sympathy for her perspective, the film features here a clip of Governor Reagan describing for a TV news reporter, “my own personal opinion,” namely, that, “The whole incident starting with the hiring of Miss Davis was a deliberate provocation.”

Davis’ narrative is accompanied by shots of her at various points in her life, posing as a child with her sister and brother, studying at the University of Frankfurt, smoking cigarettes, and meeting with members of Che Lumumba, a Communist Party club at UCLA. The film includes as well testimonies from conventionally respectable colleagues and friends who make the case that her revolutionary politics—which she pursed through the CP and also the Black Panther Party—were not scary at all, even common sense. Photojournalist Stephen Shames asserts, “Revolution is about thinking about things in a radically different way, and given the history of America, the idea that black people should be equal really equal was a revolutionary thing.” Former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman calls Davis “possibly the most intelligent person that I have ever been around, in terms of studying classical German philosophy.” (It’s this particular background that brought her to UCLA, who hired her as “someone who was trained in Continental philosophy and could teach Marxism.”)

The purchase of the guns remains at least partly separate from how they came into Jonathan Jackson’s possession, and the film doesn’t look at the case so much as the public anxiety about the case. And in that context, it’s worth considering the political savvy of the BPP, in their insistence on the right to bear arms, and how utterly frightening that appeared in media images at the time: shots of black men in berets, marching and armed, helped to generate fears and expectations that the legal system would crack down on the use and ownership of guns, even of that possession was legal. (It’s hard not to wonder how today’s NRA might make sense of these images in its anti-gun-legislation campaigns.)

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