Documentary filmmaker Shola Lynch’s new film, Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, tells the story of how the brilliant young intellectual Angela Davis was transformed into an international icon in the space of a few short years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film focuses primarily on the episode that saw her wrongly accused of having provided the guns used in 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson’s attempt to free his brother, writer and Black Panther Party activist George Jackson and his co-defendants Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette (collectively known as the Soledad Brothers), during a trial in Marin County, California in August 1970. The subsequent FBI manhunt and arrest of Angela Davis gave rise to a global campaign in her defence. The film culminates with her trial in the early summer of 1972 that sees an all-white jury pronounce her not guilty of murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges. Davis spent 18 months behind bars between her arrest in October 1970 and her release on bail shortly before the trial. This experience, together with her previous involvement with the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee and her friendship with George Jackson, laid the foundation for Davis’ on-going struggle against the ever-expanding American prison-industrial complex. I met director Shola Lynch as she visited Stockholm for the annual Tempo Documentary Festival in early March 2013.
Daniel Lindvall: Tell me about the origins of this project.
Shola Lynch: It came to me as a question. Why do I know her image, from t-shirts and posters? She’s an important historical figure but I couldn’t tell you the story really. I just knew that there was this attractive picture and she was associated with the Black Panthers and Black Power and I wanted the details of that story. I wanted to know how this 26-year-old philosophy graduate student, very intellectual, becomes an international political icon. How is that possible?
Was there a kind of identification also at work?
As a woman of colour, a black woman in the United States, she’s… Well, her name is well known. She is up there with some very distinguished historical characters. But I couldn’t really tell you the story behind why. And I think a lot of that has to do with that period in time, from 1968 to 1972, which is about exploding boundaries. Whether you are anti-Vietnam or you’re a student, it is this crazy time when nobody is behaving very well, to understate it.
Do you think “68” – revolution in the air – is a story that appeals to us now because it is hard to imagine that kind of hope today?
Absolutely. I think it is two things. It is a story that appeals to us because we can’t imagine it, but it’s also an untold story. So all the people that lived through it remember it, but those that didn’t, we don’t have the frame of reference for understanding it. There isn’t the cultural material, there aren’t that many documentaries, there aren’t that many books written about it – with some distance. They’re all still first person narratives. So, now it’s been 40 years and people are willing to look back a little bit and not be so… One reporter that I interviewed in the film, David Weir, said it best. He said, there was a cultural revolution – there was a change in how people dressed, in how people related to each other across race and gender lines – politically we believed the revolution was around the corner, and it didn’t happen. So there is anger, disappointment, shame about the political side for those that were in the hard-core political camp. And so they’ve spent the last 40 years avoiding talking about it. With that distance, and this younger generation wanting to ask questions and understand it, there’s the beginning of this kind of discussion and so this film kind of fits into that.
It’s interesting that you say that this story hasn’t really been told. I don’t know if you know the Swedish documentary, co-produced by Danny Glover among others, The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975?
Yes, but even then – the perfect example – what’s so powerful about that film is the raw footage. And the director, at least when I heard him speak, said that it’s a mix tape because what he is doing is showing you the footage. He’s not telling you the story. He’s letting the footage speak for itself. For younger people who saw that film, it was fascinating to see, but it didn’t help them understand the context and the time and the motivation. And so what was important for me is, what is the narrative story? It is a documentary, so when I say narrative it’s like… What is the story? How do you get from point A to point B? So it’s not just about exhibiting the footage, it’s about telling the story.
It’s the next step. First you do the excavation and then…
Yes, you’re right, it is. It’s archaeology.
What amazed me when I first read about Mix Tapes is that all of this was Swedish television footage. I would have imagined that you had all this footage in the United States, but apparently there is very little of that kind of footage?
Yeah. There are two things. It’s not that there is very little. It’s the way that corporate America works. There was quite a large amount of footage that was taken at the time by local TV-stations that then were bought by bigger stations and so, what happens is that some people are interested in archiving, others aren’t. Your country, European countries are better at archiving than the United States of America, so we lose a lot. And you know, there is the possibility that – just as the director [of Mix Tapes] stumbled across this box – that there are these boxes sitting around in local stations. You hope as a filmmaker, when you’re working on something, that you can get closer. But you never feel like you’ve found everything. Because, it is like that archaeology, you find a few bones, a few artefacts, and you use that to tell your story and what you hope is that it helps raise the interest and then more material surfaces.
You mention corporate America. Looking at your career, it’s sort of in and out of corporate America in a way. You have these commercial-sounding projects and then you have, maybe, the things you really wanted to do..?
Yes, you have to make a living. You have to feed your family. But also, I’ve tried to stay committed to the personal projects. What I mean by personal projects are projects that wouldn’t exist, like I couldn’t pitch Angela Davis through a corporate… It wouldn’t happen and it would be a completely different film. They wouldn’t have given me the time to do the research, to spend in the editing. Corporate America wants things like this [snaps her fingers]. And there’s a place for that, there are lots of stories to tell that way. But then there are some things that require you to put the flame on low and let it simmer. Free Angela was definitely one of those and I had the flexibility, because I controlled the budget, to say no, we’re not done editing now, we need to keep on editing and if I need to raise more money then I’m going to do it.
Was it difficult to raise the money? Danny Glover’s been trying to finance his movie about Toussaint Louverture for ages and it’s often said that black director and black hero is a difficult combination to finance?
Yeah, because what people on the business side will say is that these stories are marginal. Who’s the audience? That’s the reality that you have to deal with. It’s why for this film it was very important for me to get distribution and to be in theatres and to begin to prove that to be wrong, hopefully. So, in the United States we got picked up by CodeBlack and Lionsgate and we’re going to be in theatres on April 5th. We’ve got picked up in France theatrically. We got picked up here theatrically. I think, probably in June the release will be. It’s very important for me to say, yes, these are not just interesting and important films but they are viable in the market place.
Angela Davis is an icon here, for the left at least. She’s very well known.
Yes, and it’s the same in the States. But somehow, people on the business side in filmmaking aren’t sure of that translating into ticket sales yet. Whereas she is not a hard sale over here. The other thing is that she is also not considered a safe character, or palatable historical character, the way Rosa Parks and some of the other women that we know about are packaged. They were actually more radical than they were packaged to be, but with Angela you can’t hide her politics, you can’t hide the questions that she asks because they make you uncomfortable. She was a communist. She was very much into pushing the limits of how we thought about race and gender and justice in the United States.
Angela Davis was controversial also among black Americans for her critique of black nationalism, wasn’t she?
Exactly. She scared people and she was unapologetic about it. And that alone was so striking, especially in the sixties and seventies. Her agenda was not to convince you that she was right in the way that the civil rights movement was saying we are right, we need to convince you, we have morality on our side. She’s part of that newer generation, saying, you did that and now we have the right to be here and to exist unapologetically.
When others like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X went down a similar path, adding class to race, they got killed.
Absolutely. She survived and that’s miraculous in a certain way. What I wanted in the film was to show all the contradictions of that time and how scary it was and how people were armed. I mean guns were everywhere, no matter what side you were on you were packing.
In a tragically different way, it is still so today.
It’s absolutely relatable, the gun issue in the United States today. No, all over the world.
Thinking about what we mentioned earlier, about the cultural revolution taking place but not the socio-economical revolution, and Angela Davis’ struggle against prisons, I read somewhere recently that there are more black men in the prison system today than there were male black slaves at the time of the Civil War.
And to put it into that kind of perspective is unbelievable. How is that possible? The beginning of her prison work happens in this period, through George Jackson and getting to know the Soledad Brothers and getting involved in that defence committee. That’s where it begins for her, this realization. This is in a way the story of her becoming Angela Davis, the public figure.
Was she open to this project when you first approached her?
Initially, no. No. She doesn’t live in the past. It’s not like she is, “Oh, these were the glory days.” She lives in the present, so she’s still doing the work that she does in the present. So, that’s what’s most important to her. It took me a number of months to talk her into allowing me to interview her and participating in this project. But for me, that was the lynchpin, if I didn’t have her point of view in a film about her, what’s the point?
Looking a bit more at your background, you were in Sesame Street, as a child actor..?
For the record, that was not acting! [Laughs out loud.] You know, Sesame Street is a brilliant formula because none of the kids are actors. They are basically kids that are talkative, that will have a conversation with adults or puppets or muppets. You don’t even know the scenarios. You know that it’s about heavy and light, or near and far, so you have fun playing with the muppets and puppets. So, it’s not acting. But, yes, I was on Sesame Street.
Did you come from a media family?
Not at all. It happened totally by accident, like things happened in the seventies. One of the Channel 13 executives lived nearby and my mum was friendly with her and she used to see me and my sister running around and chatting, so she asked my mum, “There’s this new show. They are always looking for kids, would you be interested?” and mum, “Sure, why not.” And so we went to the audition. I don’t remember any of this of course. I was two and a half, but I was potty trained, so it was okay. They wouldn’t accept any kids that were not potty trained. But I do have memories of being on the set and on the stage. It was a lot of fun, cause kids are great at make-believe and that was all make-believe.
In 2004 you made a film about politician and congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, your first film as a director [Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed]. How do you see these two films relating to each other? In a way these two women followed two distinct political paths, an inside and an outside path…
Yeah… See… Well, I mean, I’m attracted, I think, to historical characters that are considered difficult, that don’t quite follow the rules. Shirley Chisholm was one of those. People kept telling her, that this is crazy. She was the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968. In 1972 she runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. And everybody told her not to. Her colleagues in Congress. The black political figures at the time. It should be a man first. But she goes ahead and does this. But it wasn’t really thought of as valuable. If you did an Internet search, the only kinds of information that would come up would be about her Congressional run. People were embarrassed by her run for president. So it was marginalized in the history books and the political science books and the women’s history books. But she was still alive. And I thought, why would you do that, run for president, when you knew you were going to lose? That’s how it started and it turned out to be this fascinating story that gives you an insight into politics. And, you know, when I finished it, I thought, she really did win in so many ways. Not the nomination, but other ways. So, Angela Davis is also a really difficult figure. People are afraid of her. There is both this kind of lionization of her and then there’s some fear around her. So I was really curious about how you go from a 26-year-old graduate student to an international political icon. And what I like about her story is that if I had scripted it, you know, written it as a narrative, no one would believe it. It’s not believable, but it’s true. That’s what I love about that story. It’s too much. From the FBI chase, from what happens with George, to the farmer who puts up the bail. How is that believable?
No, he’s not alive. There are a lot of people… The prosecutor is not alive, Ronald Reagan is not alive, Nixon is not alive. There were two FBI agents on the case. One of them had passed away. We were able to talk to the other. I do wish… It wouldn’t have been possible to tell this story 25 years ago. People weren’t ready to do it. But what would have been good is if more people had been alive.
There was some great European material in the film. The footage of Jean Genet for instance. How did you find that?
Actually, I raised about a third of the budget in France, working with French producers who came on to the project very early. And we knew it was an international movement, so we were looking for international footage. We actually tried in other countries, but it was much harder. But we were able to find that footage and I thought that Jean Genet was just so strong. I mean, it’s his words but then his… When he takes off his glasses. It’s the insistence, the passion from that period. It’s hard to translate into words. The images do it so much better. I don’t want to romanticize that period. It was hard for the people that lived it, but you were in the moment and it was important and there was so much passion along with fear, along with uncertainty, along with all these contradictory ideas. But things were getting worked out.
How do you feel when you think about that time compared to today? Do you feel sadness or is there hope again today?
I don’t know. I feel both. What’s good about stories like these is that they remind us that it’s important, if you’re going to be a citizen, for your politics to be part of your everyday. It’s not something you do just when you’re called on to vote. It doesn’t have to be about taking your own body on to the street, about protesting. It’s really about realizing that your choices are partially politics. I think we’ve gotten away from that. People have gotten a lot more materialistic and individualistic. What was great about the sixties and seventies – and this is not something that is in the film, but it is something that I was very aware of – I mean, nowadays in the United States when you get out of school, college, you have so much debt – it’s either credit card and/or to pay for school – that it’s not possible to do what the college kids did in the sixties and seventies, because school was much less expensive, things were far more affordable. When you left school you were not burdened with debt. You actually had the time, emotional, physical time and space to be able to work on things, passion projects. Now, you’re tied to financial responsibilities before you even have a chance to find out what your passions are, and so largely the people that do [have that time] are people who have means, kids who have means. So, there is an inequity in that. It’s not something we think about, but it makes a huge difference to the personal choices that you make: I have a lot of debt, I’m going to go work for Kraft, you know. I’m not going to go to organize to change the world or join a union. Cause I can’t pay my rent.
But if you look just a couple of years back there is a little more going on now, with Occupy and so on, than there was 15 or 20 years ago.
Yes, and what I think has happened is that because now it’s become impossible so people are like… Screw it! This is ridiculous! It’s gone too far. A lot of those kids that are part of Occupy are college kids that haven’t been able to find jobs, that haven’t been able to find work. And so, in that – it’s not hopelessness – but they can’t go through the system, they can’t do it the right way. So it’s like argh! And with that anger comes movement. And I love it! I think these are conversations that should be had. I don’t think we should be afraid of… We should never be afraid of ideas.
They have nothing left to lose…
Yes, their credit is already screwed, the have no employment, they are living at home. I mean, exactly – nothing left to lose.
And it’s also global – southern Europe, the UK. I read somewhere recently that the UK was now even more unequal than the US.
Well, you know part of it is that public education is no longer the strongest. We used to take care of all kids because we were in the Cold War and so it was paramount in order to win the war for citizens to be educated. Guess what, the Cold War is over! Why educate kids? I don’t know if it’s that cynical, but I think that there are these unintended consequences of the global positioning. And then, also health care. I mean it’s not affordable. If you are a teacher or a documentary filmmaker, mid-level, college educated, working. These things become very difficult to afford. They should be something that you shouldn’t have to worry about.
I keep getting spam emails from the US about buying health insurance after the health care reform. The health care reform seems to be only about telling people that you have to go out and buy private insurance or you’re punished with a fine.
Yes, there are two arguments. People should have health care and the idea is that the more people that buy health care, like anything else, it brings the price down. But the business of health care and the business of insurance also have to be regulated so they are not gouging people. I’ll give you an example. After I finished my Chisholm project I let my health insurance lapse a little and I ended up having to go to hospital for an emergency appendectomy. There was no putting it off. When it came to the bill, they wanted to charge me $40,000. I said, that is ridiculous. The administrator admitted that the health insurance companies only paid $10,000. The government pays $30,000, so she said she’d give me the government price. Shouldn’t there be one price for a surgery? Why should benefit be given to the corporation and not to the individual? But regardless, there should be one price. And if there is a price difference, how can it be tens of thousands of dollars? So I sent them a cheque for $10,000 and tried to fight it. But it just wasn’t worth it in the end, so I paid off like $20 a month. That’s an example of how these things work.
Either price would be beyond the means of about half the population.
Absolutely. That’s ridiculous.
How did you become a filmmaker?
Hm, what’s the easy answer to that? In a way, I followed my path. I became interested in history. Particularly in college. I realized there was just so much about American history that I hadn’t understood or hadn’t been taught. So I was taking literature classes and philosophy classes and history classes. And then I thought, there’s got to be a way to make this information more accessible. That history should be part of our legacy and heritage. We should know about ourselves. Particularly as women and black people. But nobody reads in the United States. Well, that’s not true, but fewer people read. So what I wanted to do was work in a museum, do installations so that people could experience history. I couldn’t really find a job doing that and it was low-paying etc. So I ended up in documentary filmmaking and I worked for Ken Burns, who makes historical documentaries, by luck. I was researcher and associate producer on a story on Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect. And then on the ten-part 20-hour Jazz series, which is the history of jazz music from 1890 to the present, which is really the history of black people and immigrants in the United States of America. It was really exciting and I guess through the course of those years, which essentially were my film school, I said to myself, gosh, I really would like to do that, I’d like to see if I can direct. I want to be able to make those choices, how the story is told. And so, the Chisholm piece was my first as a director.
You didn’t go to film school at all?
I didn’t go to film school. I apprenticed. And what was great about that apprenticeship, especially working on the Jazz series, is that if you’re a young musician, if you’re a Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker, and you’re in Cab Calloway’s band or you’re in Duke Ellington’s band, the whole point of being there is to learn and to experience and then it helps you find your own voice. You never copy, right. So, working for Ken Burns, I’m not going to make bad imitations of Ken Burns films. I’m trying to figure out what a Shola Lynch film is. And it was really instructive to be in that environment. It was absolutely the best film school for me.
You also worked on this documentary on the US ice hockey team winning the 1980 Olympics [Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team (2001)]. A Cold War story.
Yeah, after Jazz, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I want to work on something that has nothing to do with women or black people.” And that was perfect. Working class guys from all over in a great sport story.
You’ve done a lot of work for television. How do you see the developments in television over this period that you’ve been working? Is it getting more difficult?
It is getting more difficult. The budgets are getting smaller and that means the time you can spend on a project is shorter. It’s like rushing Thanksgiving dinner. You end up with undercooked turkey.
There’s been a lot of debate recently about films by white filmmakers on “black issues,” Tarantino, Lincoln.
You know, I’m not anti that. I haven’t seen Lincoln though. I’ve read some of the criticism. The thing about a story round slavery is that when you give all agency to only white characters…[makes a sceptical clicking noise].
White male upper class characters even.
Yeah, it’s not accurate by the omission of all the other characters. And that’s my general contention with how slavery is often taught in the United States, as though black people did not play a role except as victims. Bullshit! It’s not realistic. And so, when I tell a story I’m interested in incorporating discussion about that point of view, because it is not true. I did see Django Unchained. It’s not historically accurate, but the form of pulp and western to tell a story about slavery is. Django is not a realistic character. He would have been killed. There is a certain point where you know he would be dead. But this is a movie and it’s Quentin Tarantino etc. But what is accurate, I think, is the idea that it took a tremendous amount of violence to completely dehumanize Africans, create them into slaves and create a system that kept that in place. There was a huge amount of violence that was part of that. So, if the violence bothers you, too bad. That’s reality. And I thought that the violence around slavery was actually tastefully down. You don’t actually see Django whipped. You don’t actually see Kerry Washington’s character shoved in the hole or violated or anything like that. But the image of her in that hole will haunt me forever. So I think it was important in that way. And unfortunately, Quentin could raise the money for that film, there isn’t a black filmmaker that could. And that’s the messed up part. Because it’s not as though there aren’t black filmmakers that have a more violent vision or a more realistic vision, but it’s harder to make those films happen.
At least there was that violence and there was some agency in Django. If you take Amistad or Lincoln, Spielberg always finds the white upper class male hero. Like Schindler.
Exactly. And I think he’s allowed to have his point of view, but it shouldn’t be the only point of view. That’s my point. People make that kind of criticism of Ken Burns. But that’s his way of seeing the world and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but there should be room for other points of view and they should be considered on equal ground.
Do you think that these films – Lincoln, Django – by putting the spotlight on the subject of slavery could make it easier to fund films representing these other points of view as well?
That’s what I’m hoping. Because there are a lot of stories to tell. I would like to tell a story about slavery, I would like to tell one about Harriet Tubman as a freedom fighter. In a way, she’s an action heroine who could literally cloak herself in darkness. It was amazing. She’s not a runaway slave. She’s actually an agent of complete change. And I’ve started trying to talk about it, really, slavery, Harriet and I feel like oh gosh I’m starting from ground zero again. I’d like to do that. I’d like to do it as a documentary and then to write and direct it as a narrative movie. And also, I think it’s really important, especially with all of this research I’ve done on the Angela Davis project, to write a book. So I’m getting the pieces together to write a book. It should exist on film and in print.
I read that Spielberg’s film was supposed to have been about the relationship between Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass initially.
Which would have been amazing! If the film had had the counterbalancing character of Fredrick Douglass it would have been incredible. He was there. Fredrick Douglass was a major part of it.
And that would have been a real story. Now you just get this, sort of… end of a story.
It’s unfortunate. It is also that we shouldn’t look to Hollywood to tell us who we are completely. I love docs for that, because you are kind of bound by the truth. And if you’re doing a historical story in Hollywood it should be mandatory to properly fund a documentary as a companion piece. Like, this is how we are telling it in the narrative Hollywood way and here is what really happened. And I nominate myself to make those documentaries. [Laughs]
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.