Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and Other Political Prisoners does a fair-to-middling job articulating the stresses of Angela Davis’s months on the run from the law back in 1970-’71, drawing incisively on archival materials and access to a generously varied spread of interviewees, including Davis herself. But the film ultimately succumbs to the cult of personality, foisting its own retelling of Davis’s story over any contemplation of her politics, effectively neutering their power as it could apply to today in the hands of a proper film essayist. Davis—measured, careful, less than forthcoming—emerges as the film’s most forced interviewee, an odd juxtaposition that rubs badly against others’ sweeping plaudits and the surrounding history.
Davis’s inciting moment was a parole hearing turned kidnapping situation, when 17-year-old radical militant Jonathan Jackson attempted to take a supreme court judge hostage in exchange for the release of three men, including his older brother, George. Four people were killed, including Jackson and the judge; the firearms he had used were registered to Davis, and so a national manhunt ensued. Davis, then a professor at UCLA, had been preaching a Marcuse-inflected version of liberation theory, and went on the run. Looking back, she affirms in a present-day interview that the warrant for her arrest had more to do with “the construction of this invisible enemy” than her actual guilt in assisting the younger Jackson.
Shorn of her signature afro, Davis hid out across the country for two months, increasingly broke and desperate, before checking into a Howard Johnson in New York City. Lynch interviews the F.B.I. agent who apprehended her then and there, who sheds solid light on the times through his frank speaking and timeworn lack of pedantry. (Davis was a registered communist; he describes communists as “not J. Edgar Hoover’s favorite people.”) These scenes—hiding out, chain-smoking, imprisonment—are depicted in pseudo-abstract chiaroscuro, with a thin stand-in for Davis’s back to the camera as gloomy ambient music shimmers muffled on the soundtrack.
The film’s disheartening failure as a political document is clearest via Angela’s relationship with Jackson’s brother, the incarcerated revolutionary writer George. They were comrades, but over meetings and correspondence, they came to view one another as lovers as well. Despite inspiring Angela’s politics (and ultimately spurring the bungled courthouse escape), his only resonance to Lynch’s film hinges on Angela’s feelings for him. As Davis goes on trial, the prosecution claims that she was motivated less by politics than by her feelings for George—a claim all parties rebuff in interviews as sexist and ludicrous. But then again, Lynch features spot-lit quotes from Davis and George’s correspondence multiple times, zeroing in on typewritten phrases like “overflowing inside me” and “I can’t resist you” in two separate sequences. (At one point the silhouette of the actress portraying Davis is seen cuddling behind bars with a silhouette of George.)
It’s hard to take these flourishes seriously without noticing that they undercut the indignation suggested by Davis’s supporters. None of this is to say she deserves contempt—simply that, as always, the facts of the trial should be able to speak for themselves without so much syrup and gloss. Did she buy the guns or didn’t she? The closest Lynch comes to decisively answering that question is to feature an interview with veteran TV news producer Lowell Bergman, who insists, his hands up in the air, that “crazy shit happens.” When Davis concludes the film with an observation that the trial sparked the rest of her life’s work, the film hurriedly cuts to black. What this means is that newcomers have a richly detailed synopsis of two heated years and scarce else—effectively rendering the ensuing 40 years devoid of interest.