‘Free Angela and All Political Prisoners’: History and Media

“A judge and three other persons were shot to death today in an attempt by a group of convicts to escape.” The date is 7 August 1970, and for a moment as he reports this story, Walter Cronkite appears on screen, which is to say, he appears as a television image nestled inside the frame provided by Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. Shola Lynch’s documentary here sets the scene for what happened then but also how it was imagined and represented then. As archival stills and TV footage show the Marin County Courthouse parking lot, police cruisers and gurneys, a standup reporter declares, “There are still a great many loose ends, a great deal of speculation… more persons involved in the bloody event.”

The questions and speculation, as you know, focused soon enough on Angela Davis, a professor at UCLA, recently fired when it emerged that she was a member of the Communist Party. Following the shooting, she was accused of purchasing the guns used by 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson and others, as they tried to free the Soledad Brothers, including Jonathan’s older brother George. The resulting disaster incited a kind of media frenzy that has since become de rigueur, over even the least significant events. It made headlines in newspapers and the nightly news, and held viewers’ attention for long weeks, as Davis “went underground.”

The movie tracks this story, partly by interviews with the parties involved — and primarily by an extended interview with Davis now — as well as footage and photos from the time. She provides some minimalist background for herself, describing a childhood in Birmingham, Alabama: “My father had guns in the house,” she remembers, “When they came out, we all knew that when they came out, generally it was in response to some threat.” This sets up her explanation of how she came to have purchased four guns, as she perceived a threat on her firing from UCLA, in the form of letters sent to her home and the university, calling her names and describing the punishment she could expect for being a Communist, not to mention being African American and a woman too. Soliciting sympathy for her perspective, the film features here a clip of Governor Reagan describing for a TV news reporter, “my own personal opinion,” namely, that, “The whole incident starting with the hiring of Miss Davis was a deliberate provocation.”

Davis’ narrative is accompanied by shots of her at various points in her life, posing as a child with her sister and brother, studying at the University of Frankfurt, smoking cigarettes, and meeting with members of Che Lumumba, a Communist Party club at UCLA. The film includes as well testimonies from conventionally respectable colleagues and friends who make the case that her revolutionary politics — which she pursed through the CP and also the Black Panther Party — were not scary at all, even common sense. Photojournalist Stephen Shames asserts, “Revolution is about thinking about things in a radically different way, and given the history of America, the idea that black people should be equal really equal was a revolutionary thing.” Former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman calls Davis “possibly the most intelligent person that I have ever been around, in terms of studying classical German philosophy.” (It’s this particular background that brought her to UCLA, who hired her as “someone who was trained in Continental philosophy and could teach Marxism.”)

The purchase of the guns remains at least partly separate from how they came into Jonathan Jackson’s possession, and the film doesn’t look at the case so much as the public anxiety about the case. And in that context, it’s worth considering the political savvy of the BPP, in their insistence on the right to bear arms, and how utterly frightening that appeared in media images at the time: shots of black men in berets, marching and armed, helped to generate fears and expectations that the legal system would crack down on the use and ownership of guns, even of that possession was legal. (It’s hard not to wonder how today’s NRA might make sense of these images in its anti-gun-legislation campaigns.)

As the film goes on to describe the FBI’s pursuit of Davis for two months, she recalls feeling frightened; it raises for her “the whole question of crime, what does it mean to be a criminal in this society.” Bergman remembers wondering about the accusation, that she bought four guns under her own name knowing they would be used in this sort of crime: “From a purely common sense perspective, it doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, crazy shit happens!” Offering more personal perspectives, Davis’ sister Fania and childhood friend Bettina Aptheker (who becomes part of the team dedicated to her defense) remember their own concerns as well as the effects on the world as they knew it. Fania recalls the unmarked cars outside her home; Aptheker says, “Police started pulling in every tall black woman with a space between her teeth.”

As Free Angela and All Political Prisoners here provides approximate illustrations — cars on the street, women with Afros, a circa 1970s clip of a plane taking off when Davis says she flew from Las Vegas to Chicago — it follows conventional documentary structure. Without actual images, memories might still be framed into a story, and images help to make that story convincing, makes it seem like history, however personal or public that might be.

But the film does something else too, which is to consider how history, the public, collective, handed-down kind, is reified and entrenched. In the early 1970s, the process was considerably slower than it is now, when Twitter not only reports or disseminates but also becomes a story. Back then, television did much of this work. The work was slower but it was also more insistent, as more people consumed the same images and their understanding of the filtering and framing was less instantly skeptical, more likely to imagine the news was true.

The film achieves this in part by turning repeatedly to images drawn from TV, anchorman frames of Cronkite and David Brinkley reminding you of those olden days even as they also provide basic plot — as well as that Reagan clip and other like moments that make Davis’ version of events credible. But as you watch the TV spots, you become aware as well of their packaging, how they made Davis look and how they affected viewers’ “personal opinions.” This attention to the process of telling stories is of a piece with Lynch’s terrific Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004), which examined, among other things, how media shaping Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign.

In Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, this shaping takes on yet another dimension, told by the participants in Davis’ media campaign, undertaken after she was captured and the legal proceedings began. Apart from Fania traveling around the world to speak and bolster support, the campaign designs a slogan (which provides the film’s title) to insist on the common cause of Davis and other prisoners, bolstered by media interviews, as well as graphics and messaging strategies that still look sophisticated today. It’s fair to say that Free Angela and All Political Prisoners is part of the next generation of this campaign. It’s also fair to say that it’s now working within a fast-moving, ongoing set of campaigns, for all kinds of causes, shaping history day by day.

RATING 9 / 10