In the stirring, soulful Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, director Shola Lynch mixes original interview footage and archival clips with the agility of a master turntablist, syncing images and ideas with precision and focus. Lynch and her film tackle a lot: humanizing Angela Davis; retrieving from modern history’s remainder bin one of the most important episodes in the civil rights struggle; and subtly underscoring both how far we’ve come on issues of race, class, gender, and injustice—and how far there still is to go. The amount of information doled out may seem daunting, but it never overwhelms; none is superfluous. And thanks to Lynch’s expert pacing and modulation of narrative tension, even viewers who already know the outcome of the film’s central incident will likely be pulled to the edges of their seats.
Prisoners‘ primary focus is Davis’s infamous 1971 trial. In October 1970, she was arrested and charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder following the botched execution of a plan to free Black Panther George Jackson. In August of that year, Jackson’s 17-year-old brother Jonathan had taken guns from Davis’s home without her knowledge. He used them to burst into a packed courtroom, free three prisoners, and seize hostages that he intended to barter for his brother’s freedom. A hail of bullets later, Jonathan, two of the prisoners, and a judge were dead. Once her connection to the guns was discovered, Davis, already a controversial figure, became the third woman to make the FBI’s Most Wanted list. She grew into something of a mythic figure as she went underground, crisscrossing the country while fleeing authorities. Once arrested, she faced the death penalty.
Lynch’s film doesn’t only reveal what happened while Davis was on the run (both in her life and on the volatile political landscape). It shears away mythologies while demonstrating why Davis and other activists of the time became, for many, enduringly romantic figures: the Black Panthers, whose sexism and nationalism were anathema to the larger political vision Davis was formulating, and under-sung heroes like Franklin and Kendra Alexander, with whom Davis formed close personal and political relationships. “I needed a collective,” Davis says today. “I didn’t see myself accomplishing anything important as an individual.”
Nearly every frame of the archival footage could be extracted for a stunning still or poster, and watching Davis, George Jackson, and others move and speak is a swoon-inducing experience. There’s droll humor when Davis observes, “It’s very interesting that white people have been called radical for a very long time, and black people have been called militant.” The ebullience in her voice and the playfulness on her face, the wry humor black Americans have often used to deal with this country’s racial realities, do nothing to detract from her point. But those qualities temper her steely image to reveal her (no less fierce) human dimensions.
Prisoners is captivating from start to finish. Lynch offers extraordinary clips of activists and friends of Davis’s. Jean Genet blasts President Richard Nixon in a press conference: “Nixon, I’m speaking directly to you,” he says. “Once you discerned that black Americans surpassed you in revolutionary spirit, you were determined to destroy them.”
For all that, much of the film’s power lies in its subtleties. Twice we hear brief, unidentified snippets of Max Roach’s “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” from his landmark 1960 jazz album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. On that three-part track, the late Abbey Lincoln’s wordless vocalizing moves from soothing, prayer-like crooning to bloodcurdling screams and yelps. Language simply isn’t up to the tasks of illustrating the beauty and spirit that black folks have held on to in the face of the unspeakable, nor can it capture the horrors—and concomitant sorrow and fury—that stretch from the Middle Passage to Trayvon Martin’s grave. The film is an investigation into Davis’s courtroom victory, a map from her days as an embattled professor and fugitive to her present incarnation as a tireless prison reform activist, and a loving nod to all those freedom fighters of yore. But what it most powerfully captures is the way Davis and others in the struggle, drawing on the political theory of Herbert Marcuse, the tenets of Marxism, and bluntly spoken down-home truths, pushed through the impotence of language not just to speak truth to power but for once, at least briefly, to force power to listen.