On ‘Free Angela & All Political Prisoners’

Directed by Shola Lynch, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners details Angela Davis’s struggle for justice and the worldwide movement that helped deliver it.

The story is familiar to many. In 1970, Davis was charged with the murder of a California judge and placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list after going into hiding—she was found in New York City and arrested less than two months later. With the full force of federal and state governments out to destroy her, a conviction and death sentence was near certain.

Lynch offers a beautiful, complex portrait of Davis during this time. Skewering the likes of Ronald Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, Lynch’s filmmaking is of the Hollywood-narrative style, tragic with a suspenseful intensity—and ultimately triumphant. The hero wins; the villains lose. Davis is cleared of all charges by an all-white jury, and the United States criminal justice system sets her free in a sort-of Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington moment.  American ideals of justice save the day. The system works!

Except when it doesn’t. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the 2011 execution of Troy Davis. Another Davis, another movement—but this time, as with so many others, the state won.

Angela Davis has always been at the forefront of the prison abolition movement. Last year I saw her speak at Removing the Bars, a conference at Columbia University right after the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Davis told us that we must not “exceptionalize” Trayvon, for the problems of violence and racism are structural, sanctioned by the state and by society. The sad truth is that the death of Trayvon Martin, or Kimani Gray, or Sean Bell is much more common than the victory of Angela Davis.

Therein lies what the documentary fails to deliver: that the brutality of the United States and its prison industrial complex (a term that was actually coined by Davis in 1997) have worsened—exponentially in fact—since Angela Davis’s release. While watching the film, I feared that the representation of a fair system not only erases the reality for so many but also obscures the fact that things have actually gotten much worse.

And yet, with this criticism in mind, Lynch’s film is still necessary—it represents a moment when mass movements for social justice prevailed. It represents victory and hope for radical politics. We need these moments, and we need Angela Davis. And we need Shola Lynch to tell these stories. As Lynch, a remarkable activist in her own right, told The Root this month,

Talking to Angela Davis or anybody who grew up under heinous racial segregation, their parents taught them who they were, their history and their worth. With integration, parents thought everybody was in the best school possible, but black kids weren’t learning about blackness. Who wants to be a slave and then beaten? And in the general narrative of American history, things happen to blacks, and we take it, but that’s not the true story or what young black people need to hear about themselves.

We’re part of the fabric of American history. We are survivors, and characters like Angela Davis help us remember that.

Lynch’s mission to tell these stories (as she also did in her 2005 documentary on Shirley Chisholm) is crucial to resurrecting social and cultural histories that help us understand and contextualize our contemporary politics. And since, though divorced from our current context, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners presents accurate and honest documentation on how and why the Free Angela movement succeeded, the film offers a hope that many activists need. Seeing Angela Davis win her freedom, against the historical odds, and not without struggle, reminds us that radical change is possible. And with the feelings of hopelessness that often accompany political activism, a renewed sense of possibility is nothing short of exhilarating.

To learn more about Angela Davis’s prison abolition activism, visit Critical Resistance’s website, an organization she helped found. Davis has also written several books on the topic, such as Are Prisons Obsolete? and Abolition Democracy: Prisons, Torture, and Empire.

Further reading on the United States’ Prison Industrial Complex:
Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex by Angela Davis (1998)
Words Matter: Thoughts on Language & Abolition by Critical Resistance
Drug War Statistics from Drug Policy Alliance
Jim Crow Still Exists in America: An Interview with Michelle Alexander on Fresh Air
Throwaway People by Liliana Segura