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NEW YORK – In the late 1960s and early 1970s, millions of people across America and around the world knew the name, face and Afro of the young black academic and activist Angela Davis. Today, far fewer do, and Davis, now 69 but sporting a similar hairstyle, couldn’t be happier about it. Even so, she agreed to fly from Oakland to New York this week in order to attend a Peggy Siegal luncheon today in support of a new documentary about her life, Shola Lynch‘s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.
I had the good fortune of being seated right beside Davis, a fellow alum of Brandeis University, and she spoke quite candidly to me — and then to the entire room at Brasserie Ruhlmann, which also included Oscar-winning writer-directors Geoffrey Fletcher and Paul Haggis (a consultant on the film), as well as actress Vivica Fox — about her past experiences, her life today and her thoughts about the film. (I have posted footage of her remarks at the bottom of this post.)
Davis first came to the public’s attention in 1969 when UCLA hired her as a professor and then fired her when she refused to disavow her membership in the Communist Party USA and association with the Black Panther Party. Less than a year later, a federal judge was kidnapped and, in the process, killed with weapons that traced back to Davis, which led to a warrant being issued for her arrest for aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder. She went into hiding, became the third woman ever added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List and, following a massive manhunt, was eventually captured. Insisting upon her innocence, she was tried and — in a case that divided the nation — ultimately acquitted of all charges.
Over the ensuing 40-plus years, Davis has generally shied away from the limelight. She has written books, lectured and traveled the world, but rarely revisited her past or cooperated with others’ efforts to do the same. That changed when Lynch, a particularly impressive friend of Davis’ niece and a filmmaker protégé of Ken Burns, whose 2004 Shirley Chisholm documentary, Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, had greatly impressed Davis (who knew and worked with Chisholm), reached out to Davis about telling her story in a documentary.
Davis told the luncheon attendees: “My position was, ‘I’m not that interested in something that focuses on me.’ I’ve always been that way; I’ve always been rather shy, and I like to work not at the center but in the background because I think that’s where the most important work gets done. But I thought it might be important for young people who didn’t experience that era, as well as for people who did experience that era, to remember that there was this important victory. Because oftentimes we struggle and we struggle but we have no evidence of the fact that our work actually will make a difference in the world. So here was an example of a challenge to the government — Richard Nixon was the president and Ronald Reagan was the governor of California — that no one would have ever predicted that it would be possible to win, regardless of my innocence. And to show the way in which this movement developed all over the country and literally all over the world and completely transformed the courtroom and made it possible for that acquittal to happen — that was a story I thought that we all could be inspired by, especially young people who have not had the opportunity to experience the fruits of their struggle. And so that was primarily why I agreed.”
Free Angela premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, was released in select U.S. theaters on April 5 by Lionsgate’s Codeblack Entertainment and has been generously championed by producers Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Jay Z, all of whom are credited as producers of the film.
When one sees the finished product, it becomes clear why it took Lynch eight years to put it all together. The film features voluminous amounts of archival footage, all of which took time to locate and procure. (Davis says much of it she had never previously seen.) It features recent, in-depth and revealing interviews with virtually all of the principal figures from Davis’ long-ago case, some of whom have since passed away. (Davis says, “I learned things from the film that I didn’t know myself” — such how the FBI eventually located her, via Lynch’s interview with the agent who led the search — adding, “It was kind of shocking to me to learn these things 40 years later.”) And it succeeds in its mission to help us understand how Davis became the woman she is today, so much so that it seems like an obvious candidate for the Academy’s best documentary feature Oscar shortlist, at the very least.
Here, for your reference, is my iPhone footage of Davis’ full remarks to the gathering:
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