by The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey
Angela Davis is one of the most famous women, communists and professors to be groomed in the tumultuous revolutionary ‘60s and ‘70s, when Blacks and other so-called Third World peoples fought the empires of the world fearlessly in this country. On Aug. 7, 1970, she was thrust into world history after Jonathan Jackson, the younger brother of Black Panther and prison leader George Jackson, was assassinated after the Marin County Courthouse takeover, and she was tracked down by the FBI for being the purchaser of the weapons used on that day.
Her history with the Communist Party, her co-defendant Ruchell Magee and George Jackson are discussed intimately in the “Free Angela” documentary by Shola Lynch. Check her out in her own words…
M.O.I. JR: Can you give us a little bit of history about yourself and when you decided on becoming a filmmaker?
Shola Lynch: I didn’t decide to become a filmmaker. I evolved into one. Originally, I wanted to be a historical museum curator. After graduate school, I couldn’t land a job in that track. But as luck would have it, I got a job with Ken Burns, who makes historical docs, so I ended up curating for film. I worked for him and his company for four years. It was like my film school. It was only then that I was inspired to direct and write a doc. “Chisholm ‘72” was my first and when it turned out to be good, I thought I can do this – I’m a filmmaker.
M.O.I. JR: What made you choose Angela Davis as a subject for this film?
Shola Lynch: Each independent story that I tell, calls me. I usually resist at first, but then at some point I’m compelled to give in.
Shola Lynch: First, that part of the story reminds us that Black families did – and do – exist. Second, that generation of middle class Blacks felt a responsibility to be politically active. Like going to church pushing for civil rights was part of your life. It also included making sure your kids were well educated and had a sense of self that was not defined by the larger white world. Our families have sadly forgotten some of these lessons.
M.O.I. JR: Angela is a controversial figure with the establishment because, although she was a radical university professor, she is also interested in revolutionary ideas and the Communist Party. Was it hard to get people to talk about her history?
Shola Lynch: Yes. It was even hard to get her to talk about it. On the government’s side, it was also hard because so many people had died – Nixon, Reagan and also the prosecuting lawyer.
With that said, many folks just plain said, “No.” Some of the best interviews were journalists, because they didn’t have an ideological ax to grind and could speak to the many sides in this story.
Even harder than getting interviews for a story like this was raising the funds.
M.O.I. JR: I was very surprised that you talked about Angela Davis’ co-defendant Ruchell Magee, who is still a political prisoner because of the events that went down on Aug. 7, 1970, in Marin. What made you discuss him? Did Angela or her family talk about him during the making of this documentary? What did they say about him being left behind?
Shola Lynch: Why were you surprised? Ruchell Magee is an integral part of the story. I wanted to interview him as well, but that was not possible. But as you see in the doc, Ruchell was a co-defendant with Angela until they could not agree on a legal strategy. It was important to have his part in the story because what happens with Ruchell is more the rule, and what happens to Angela is more the exception.
M.O.I. JR: How was this film funded? Did the investors try and alter your original ideas for the film?
Shola Lynch: The film production was funded by grants and presales in France and the U.S. The footage licensing was outrageously expensive and required additional fundraising. That is when “Free Angela” got connected with Jada Pinkett Smith.
Shola Lynch: This is not the story she would tell or the film she would make. But it’s fair and true and emotionally compelling, so she’s come to accept it.
M.O.I. JR: I liked the part most where you talked about her relationship with prison movement leader George Jackson. How do you think this relationship affected her political growth at the time?
Shola Lynch: Her relationship to George Jackson is integral to her political growth. It is intertwined in her initiation with political prisoners – and seeing young men swept up into the prison system as political prisoners. This is in 1969-‘70. It is even more relevant now with the explosion in the prison population over the last several decades.
M.O.I. JR: How was Angela Davis able to navigate the politics of the Communist Party and the Black Panther Party?
Shola Lynch: Angela did it by joining the Che Lumumba Club, which was named after Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba – Third World revolutionaries who had been part of movements to overthrow colonialism in their respective countries. It was also a Black and Brown collective that wanted to be part of the Black liberation and power movements.
Shola Lynch: Eight years. To put it in perspective, my husband and our two toddlers have never known me not to be working on “Free Angela.” In fact, the youngest, who is three, confuses her with being a family member. Through working on the film, Angela’s name is evoked all the time at home, and her photos are around the house too.
M.O.I. JR: What do you hope people get out of this documentary?
Shola Lynch: I hope folks get swept up in the ride and engage and wrestle with the story. I tried to take the audience back to 1969-’70, to the urgency and political passion of the times, so whether you lived through it or were just learning about the times, the story would feel emotionally authentic and real. From both audiences, the reviews have been good.
One favorite moment came after the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles when some of Angela’s nieces and nephews saw the doc. One said, “We knew our Aunt (Angela) was politically famous – but now we get it!”
M.O.I. JR: How do people stay in touch with you?
Shola Lynch: Social media. I’m pretty good about Facebook and trying to be better about twitter: @sholalynch.
The People’s Minister of Information JR is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, atwww.blockreportradio.com. He also hosts two weekly shows on KPFA 94.1 FM and kpfa.org: The Morning Mix every Wednesday, 8-9 a.m., and The Block Report every other Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.