Film Review: Free Angela and All Political PrisonersDocumentary focuses less on the facts of the Angela Davis case than on efforts to free her.
A Black Power icon is celebrated more than examined in Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Shola Lynch's involving account of how Angela Davis found herself first on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, then the hero of a global protest movement. More limited in scope than 2011’s Black Power Mixtape, which also conjured this exciting moment in American history, it likely has a smaller audience than that film but will be welcomed on small screens.
Benefitting from lengthy present-day interviews with Davis, the film introduces us to a young woman who left Birmingham, Alabama, for college just before civil-rights upheaval, then found herself studying in Germany before realizing she needed to be in her own country to participate in social change. Ample news clips capture the revolutionary spirit surrounding the Black Panthers, but Davis recounts a scene that was at first hard to join—with her academic background, she was treated as an outsider until connecting with the Che-Lumumba Club.
Davis found the spotlight when, as an assistant prof at UCLA, she was fired for her membership in the Communist Party. She became an outspoken advocate of the Soledad Brothers, three black prisoners accused of killing a guard, and fell in love with one of them, George Jackson. When Jackson's teenage brother Jonathan attempted to free the three men in a raid that resulted in the death of a Superior Court judge—and used guns bought by Davis—Davis was immediately accused of participating in the plot. She went on the run, hiding her distinctive Afro, but was caught in New York City and imprisoned without bail.
With the film devoting so much time to the U.S. government's pursuit and prosecution of Davis, and to the personalities who mounted her defense and rallied international support, it's interesting how little we hear about the event in question. Davis's decision to own guns is easily understood—her notoriety made her the victim of routine threats—but the doc offers no explanation of how those guns might have wound up being used in the raid, and never shows Davis denying knowledge of Jonathan Jackson's plan.
"No one knows the full truth of what happened," Lynch says in the doc's press kit, which states that "for the first time, [Davis] gives her fullest account of what happened." But that won't jibe with the impressions of viewers who arrive with a critical eye or without knowing the story. Free Angela Davis seems to assume that the viewer either intuits her innocence or believes Jackson's plot was righteous enough that prosecuting a possible participant was the same as persecuting a dissident thinker.
An all-white jury eventually found Davis not guilty, of course. Lynch ends her film there, leaving those who are new to this story wondering what Davis did with the rest of her life, and whether her work (and that of the nameless "political prisoners" referred to in the film's title but barely discussed) had an impact commensurate with the government's fervor for silencing her.
—The Hollywood Reporter