Monday, September 10, 2012

TIFF 2012: Free Angela Davis

Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners (U.S., 2012) directed by Shola Lynch, 101 minutes
Monday, September 10, 2012, Scotiabank 1, 2.00p

Who is Angela Davis? What was she before she became this beautiful icon on a poster or a button? My memories/knowledge of Davis are reduced to these visual images … I knew she supported the Black Panthers. I knew that she went into hiding and then was arrested by the FBI but I didn’t know or had forgotten the details. This doc serves to rectify that for those of us who were too young to remember or have forgotten this important historical period.

Throughout the film, we have the advantage of Davis, now 68, narrating the events of her own life with additional commentary from both supporters and some involved in apprehending her. She is still passionate, elegant, articulate - the viewer can easily see how people were drawn to her, even those who did not espouse Communism or might have had serious reservations about the goals of the Black Panthers (amusingly, watch the white people in crowds doing the Black Panther power salute).

Davis was an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Los Angeles. Originally from Alabama in the south, she studied at Brandeis University and German philosophy at Frankfurt University and eventually moved back to the U.S. to assume this academic position at UCLA.

She was a radical who supported withdrawal from the Vietnam War, gay rights, prison reform, the Black Panthers … your basic right-wing conservative nightmare in Ronald Reagan's California.

The filmmaker lets the images of that time speak for themselves: photos and film of black people being beaten the streets by cops, fire hoses turned on women and children, an older lady who looks like your aunt Ginny being dragged down the street by a burly cop. It certainly must have felt like black people were under siege.

A vocal member of the Communist party and an advocate for the Soledad Brothers - three black prison inmates charged with the murder of white prison guard (which included prison advocate George Jackson) - she soon became the target of racist invective and death threats herelf. She bought a gun; actually, she bought four guns. Some of those were used in a hostage taking by a trio of Black Panthers in a courthouse in California that ended with the killing of a judge.

On August 7, 1970, George Jackson's seventeen-year-old brother Jonathan held up a courtroom at the Marin County Civic Center and took Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and three female jurors hostage in a bid to secure the freedom of the "Soledad Brothers". It ended spectacularly - horribly and bloodily.

Davis was charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy and imprisoned. A massive worldwide campaign ensued to “free” her. The film documents the events leading to the hostage taking, the political fall out, the push to remove Davis from her academic position with California governor Ronald Reagan leading the charge and urging the regents to remove Davis. The film also documents the Angela "mania" effectively - the rallies in foreign countries in support of Davis, the T-shirts, the buttons, the music written in homage.

She was eventually acquitted in 1972 but continued to work as an activist and lecturer - a portion of her life that the doc does not explore - but disavowed her membership in the Communist party.

And she continues to persevere … the charisma, the magic is still there. She continues to inspire even if her thoughts appear more measured and voiced in less strident tones. And, happily for me, she's still got a very cool Afro do happening. 

Angela now ...

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