Filmmaker Shola Lynch describes the story of Angela Davis’ arrest and trial in the early 1970s as “a political crime drama with a love story in the middle of it.” That inherent intrigue and drama is what led her to make Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, a documentary that she has been working on for the past eight years. Through a mix of present-day interviews and archival film and audio recordings, Lynch tells the story of Davis’ early days as a professor and activist and highlights the series of events that led to Davis becoming an internationally-recognized symbol of social justice. Regardless of one’s existing familiarity with Davis’ history, the film presents a fascinating and complex look at the culture of radical organizing that has cultivated advances in racial justice, feminism, economic issues, and prison reform over the past 50 years. Additionally, all aspects of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners — from the on-screen events depicted to the off-screen collaborative process of Lynch and Executive Producer Jada Pinkett Smith — demonstrate the power of women working together to create and support social change. If you missed Tuesday’s screening, you can see the film at AMC Theatres in New York, LA, Atlanta, Boston, DC, Detroit, Oakland, and Philadelphia starting this weekend.
After the screening, Lynch joined filmmaker and friend of STF, Hugo Perez, for a discussion.
Stranger Than Fiction: I was Googling you earlier today, and there’s just something we need to get out very quickly, which is…can you talk about being on Sesame Street as a child? (laughter) If you Google Shola’s name and Sesame Street, you find very cute pictures of her with Bert and Ernie.
Shola Lynch: Yeah. Well, that’s what the ’70s were all about. Does anyone here remember the album “Free to Be You and Me”? (applause) Marlo Thomas? Hello, I drank the Kool-Aid. That’s why I’m here today. That was all part of the training.
STF: Well, the formation of public television in this country was kind of a revolutionary act, which today would probably never happen.
Lynch: It’s true. It’s true.
STF: I read somewhere that you had said that you were sick of hearing that people weren’t interested in films about black women. And you’ve just made two fantastic films about black women. Can you talk about your inspiration for working on those films?
Lynch: Uh, being black and a woman. (laughter) I don’t know. You know, it’s one of those things. In the arc of American history, we get left out a lot; we’re people who don’t fit the general narrative. So you grow up thinking critically about it, and then you get to high school or college, and you have that teacher who says, “You existed.” And then you’re hungry for the stories.
My father is from Trinidad and Tobago, and so he studied West African history, and any time anyone came over to the house, they not only had to come with facts, they had to come with presentation and be the griot. So I realized that part of what I was missing from my education was the story, the narrative, the griot element of who I was and how I fit into the narrative of American history. I went to graduate school and thought I would become a professor, realized nobody read, and then I was lucky enough to find a job working in filmmaking, where I learned how stories can impact our lives.
STF: I was talking with Walter Mosley, the great writer, and he was saying that part of the motivation he had for writing his books about a black detective character is that, when he was growing up, he didn’t have those books to read. As a filmmaker, do you feel like your filling in the gap for a younger generation?
Lynch: Yeah. Well, it’s a double-edged sword, because you don’t want to get pigeonholed. Before I chose Angela Davis as a subject, I thought, “What I need to do is a film about Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers, something that’s bigger,” and then I realized that, no, Angela’s story is so good. It’s a political crime drama with a love story in the middle of it. What an opportunity! So when Angela finally said yes, I ran with that opportunity.
But it was not easy to raise the money, because we’re in a business where people wonder who would see a movie like this. The are two comments made by executives that stick out in my mind. One was, “So let me get this straight: You’re only talking to senior citizens?” Now, who thinks of Angela Davis and the people you see in this film as “senior citizens”? That’s so not getting it, right? The other was somebody in the music business who said, “Yeah, documentaries are cool, but what we really want to do is make a narrative feature, and first, you have to tell me who the main male characters are, because nobody goes to see movies with women as leads.” (laughter) He said it to my face straight. He didn’t get it, either. So it took eight years to make this film, and it was in partnership with producers in France. The French love Angela Davis. They love black women. (laughter) That’s a double-edged sword of exoticism, but we put the money in our pocket to at least make the film. (laughter)
STF: Can you talk about how you got connected to Angela and what that conversation was like?
Lynch: It was very hard to get connected to Angela. I don’t know if you noticed that she’s reserved, and she’s private, and she’s shy. Shirley Chisholm was somebody you always wanted to get to directly. Angela Davis was not. I got closer and closer by showing the Chisholm film to people connected to her, and then finally, eight or ten months later, she watched the Chisholm documentary. So it was really nothing that I said; it was my previous work. And what she said about it when we met is, “I thought I knew her story.” But the way she said it made me realize that there was so much about her own story she has no idea about. How could she? So that was that little door, that little opportunity. Then she said she would do an interview, and then after that, it was good.
STF: Why don’t we talk about the distribution of the film? It’s very exciting.
Lynch: Yes. I am very, very, very proud to announce that the film was picked up by CodeBlack and Lionsgate, and it will be in AMC Theaters starting Friday. (applause) So, Twitter friends, Facebook friends, I need your help. I need you to talk about the film. Do your thing, and help spread the word. It’s really important. The first thing that people want to know when you go and pitch your movie idea is how your last movie did. “How was your last box office?” “How many DVDs did you sell?” It all helps.
STF: Can you talk about the importance of thinking about Angela’s story in the context of today?
Lynch: Yes. Actually, one of the things I learned from her is patience. The arc of justice is long. Here’s this person who, after these events in 1972, could have completely burned out. She could have completely said, “You know what, I did my tour. That’s it, I’m out.” Instead, she spent the next 40 years working on justice issues. And so, when she says at the end of the film – and it took me a long time to understand the importance of this – “It’s not something you do separate from your life; it’s something you do as part of your life. It was part of how we lived our lives,” this light bulb went on in my head. It’s true. Vigilance is what we all need to have in our lives. That’s what will create justice, and it’s a daily activity. It’s not just about voting every four years.
Audience: What happened to Angela after this experience? Did she go back to teaching?
Lynch: She actually did tour the world speaking for about a year or two, and then she went back to teaching. Teaching has always been what anchored her. She was at San Francisco State, and then UC Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness department, which she ran at one point. So she’s developed graduate students who are asking these kinds of critical questions.
The other thing I was struck by with this period is that this was a period in which we actually had public intellectuals asking questions that made us uncomfortable, and we were okay with that. So when she’s talking about George Jackson and the Soledad brothers as political prisoners, not petty criminals, that was really shocking and difficult. We had a Q&A in LA at the Pan-African Film Festival, and somebody asked Angela about her work with prisons, and she said, “Let me be clear: I’m not talking about prison reform, I’m talking about prison abolition.” The whole room went silent! But these are questions we should be thinking about. She’s an activist.
Audience: You mentioned earlier that it was hard to get people to talk about this topic. But outside of raising the money, have you felt like there were forces trying to prevent or stop you from telling this story? What were some of the obstacles?
Lynch: There were a lot of obstacles, but my attitude towards obstacles is that I’m a stubborn person, and I think about how I’m going to get over or around the obstacles I encounter. The thing is, you get one chance to make a film like this, and if it’s not good, you probably could get by, but you’d know in your heart that it’s not as good as it could be. For me, the reason you make an independent film is so that you can see it all the way to the end, and it can feel what you need it to feel. Then it can go out in the world and be criticized or praised, and whatever happens to it, you’re okay with it, because you gave it 110%.
Audience: How hard was it to acquire all of the archival footage that you used?
Lynch: I love the DJ term “digging in the crates,” because that’s what researching is. What I like to be able to do is raise enough money to have the time and the staff to dig in the crates. We had a great research team on this film. And then, we got all this great stuff, and we were trying to finish the film, and we figured out that we didn’t have enough money to license this stuff. We were very lucky to be able to license the footage, and this is where the Ford Foundation came in, and this is where we got connected to our Executive Producer, Jada Pinkett Smith. She saw a cut of the film through a friend. I don’t have much confidence in celebrities, but she was into it. She showed up and she helped us finish. She showed it to her husband, and they showed it to Jay-Z, so this has completely helped us, but let me tell you: it is the ladies standing up for our stories that make them happen. (applause)
Audience: What was the most challenging part of the editing process?
Lynch: There were so many challenging parts, but I would say that this story is so complicated: there’s the political level, there’s Angela’s story, there’s the crime, there is the movement, there’s the FBI, etc. So this film was awful for a very long time. I mean, honestly. I would come home every night and say, “Yep, the film still sucks.” (laughter) But you could see little kernels, and we worked on the kernels, the glimmers of light and hope, and we just kept massaging it and pushing and testing it and trying it. And finally, around Christmas, we were like, “Okay, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.” And then it still took us three more months.
Audience: What has Angela’s response to the film been?
Lynch: Well, you know, she’s an academic. (laughter) She has a complicated relationship and response to the film. I like to say, “This is your story,” and she likes to say, “This is your film.” What she means by that is that, if she made the film, it would be deeply political. There would be less of the personal. Even what she says about George Jackson is totally underplayed, but he humanized her and gave a sense of who she is as a person and a woman, which was really important to me. So I let her be herself, and it took us a long time to figure out that, for who she is and how she expresses herself, she was actually sharing a lot. But I’m persistent. So if she didn’t answer a question, I would reshuffle it and rephrase it. There were points in the interview when she got straight-out annoyed, but I wanted her to answer certain questions, or at least push her a bit and see what she would say.
Audience: I saw in the credits that you listed a consigliere. Could you talk about that?
Lynch: My consigliere? There were two. The Chisolm film was edited by Sam Pollard, so now, every film I make, I need to have Sam in my orbit. He’s so good about coming into the editing room and offering advice. And then the other consigliere…I was on a panel with this guy. You may know him – Paul Haggis. And we hit it off. We were bantering, chatting, whatever, and he flippantly said, “You know what, your Angela Davis project sounds really interesting. Let me know if I can help you. Here’s my email address.” And this is when I had a trailer, a treatment, and no money. So of course, I emailed him the next day. He said I could use his name, which ultimately didn’t help us much, but when we were struggling in the editing room, I invited him to come and give us notes. And he did. He came to the editing room with his notepad, and he was very helpful in offering advice.
Audience: I was at the University of Illinois in 1970, and I saw the police come with weapons to protect us, supposedly, and I want you to know how well you captured that particular time and space. It was marvelous just to see the paranoia, the accusations, all of the things that were happening. My question to you is, do you think this film might have a say in how we now legislate gun control?
Lynch: First of all, thank you. We always thought about two audiences for this film: we thought about you and the fact that when you said the revolution was right around the corner, you meant it. It wasn’t the punch line to a joke, which is kind of how our generation would say it. And then we thought about how we would make this time and place real for the people who didn’t live through it. So I appreciate your comments. And I do think there are a lot of things in this film to talk about, and I’m hoping to work with Tribeca Film Intitute on creating educational materials for teachers. Gun control is one of those topics we’d want to explore in those materials.
Audience: You had such a creative use of casting, both on and off-screen. I noticed that BET was involved in the film, and they had awarded Angela Davis the Black Girls Rock! Award. Was that a launching pad for the film in any way?
Lynch: Black Girls Rock! did honor Angela Davis, and we already had our deal with BET. BET had come to me, expressing interest in securing the TV rights. And I said, “Listen, you can’t afford me. I’m trying to finish the film. No.” I was trying to work out a deal with PBS, and BET came back to me and said, “How much do you need? We’re serious.” And they were. So that’s what happened. And Loretha Jones, an executive at BET, said to me, “One of the things we’d like to do is introduce her to our audience. I don’t know if we can make this happen, but we’re going to start talking about her, and maybe Black Girls Rock! can give her an award.” So it was all loosely part of the discussion around Angela Davis. But this is a really good time for her, because she just retired. She’s 69. She’s 69 and her schedule is so tough with travel all over the world, talking about various issues.
Audience: I had never heard the story of who posted bail for Angela. How did you find that out and decide to make that part of the story?
Lynch: Just digging in the crates. I’d thought Aretha Franklin had done it, but we were digging in the crates and found the footage, and we realized, “No, it wasn’t Aretha Franklin.” We found the footage of this guy, and he was just a regular guy; he was a regular guy who just felt really strongly about Angela’s cause. And he had to defend himself. He had to have guns, he was threatened, his kids were threatened – the repercussions were really rough for him. But he believed strongly in the principle.
Audience: Has he seen the film?
Lynch: He’s dead, but his kids still run the farm, and we’re going to have a screening in Oakland sometime next week, and I’m going to try to bring all of the Oakland folks out.