Few American lives encapsulate the tumult and triumph of the civil rights movement as much as that of author, educator and radical activist Angela Davis. Her wide range of admirers extends to include Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. A professor at UCLA, an open member of the Communist Party and an associate of the Black Panthers, Davis possessed an incendiary cocktail of attributes that made her the establishment’s worst nightmare: not only was she educated, fiercely intelligent and fearlessly outspoken, she was also a socialist, an African-American and a woman. It’s an understatement to say that not everyone in the U.S. was ready for Angela Davis — and some in fact did their utmost to put her behind bars forever. FREE ANGELA & ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS is the gripping story of how Davis became an international icon of social revolution and progressive politics.

Built around new interviews with Davis, the film recounts her Alabama upbringing, her studies in the U.S. and Europe, and the start of her academic career in the philosophy department at UCLA, where she quickly drew fire for her membership in the CP — which then-governor Ronald Reagan publicly labelled a “provocation.” (Reagan would later amend this, claiming that what really irked him was Davis’ “unprofessionalism.”) A campaign began to have Davis banned from teaching anywhere in the state. She began receiving death threats, which led her to purchase her first firearm.

But Davis’ problems had only just begun: in 1970, she was charged with conspiracy in kidnapping and murder following Jonathan Jackson’s dramatic daylight abduction of Judge Harold Haley from the Marin County courthouse, which ended with Jackson, Haley, and two others dead in a shootout with police. Chronicling Davis’ time in hiding, her eventual arrest and highly publicized trial via archival footage and her own words, this captivating documentary has all the fascination of a crime thriller and a courtroom drama, while touching on contentious issues around racial prejudice, gun control and freedom of speech.

Toronto International Film Festival