Angela Davis Film Explores The 'Terrorist' And Scholar

Angela Davis was once on the FBI's most wanted list. But decades after her brush with the law as a political activist, she remains a hero to some, and a villain to others. Host Michel Martin talks with Shola Lynch, the director of the new documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Terrorism is certainly on our radar again, if indeed it every left, which is just one reason why the documentary "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners" makes such a profound impression. The documentary, which is in theaters now, takes a new look at Angela Davis, the California philosophy professor who joined the list of the FBI's most wanted terrorists after she was implicated in a plan to free another inmate by taking a judge hostage.

Here's a clip from the film of Angela's sister addressing the crowd outside the courthouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FREE ANGELA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS")

FANIA DAVIS JORDAN: We had a nice long visit with Angela and she's in very high spirits. She's feeling good.

And she's feeling good because she knows that the movement to free all political prisoners is growing every day.

MARTIN: Recently, we spoke with one of the film's executive producers, the entertainment mogul Jada Pinkett Smith, but the film has attracted such interest and provoked so many questions, we wanted to call the film's director, as well. And Shola Lynch is with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SHOLA LYNCH: No problem. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Shola, a lot of people might remember you from the film that you did previously about Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. How did you get interested in Angela Davis?

LYNCH: Well, after that film, I was like, what am I going to do next? What can I follow up with? And Angela's image just kept showing up. I'd see it on a t-shirt. I'd see somebody carrying her book. And then I realized, as I investigated a little bit about her story, that I didn't really know it and so I became fascinated with what has turned out to be a political crime drama.

MARTIN: One of the things that I learned from the film that either I never knew or had forgotten was that she was a classically trained philosophy professor. She was rather, actually, an improbable figure to take on the role that she later undertook. So is there something like that that surprised you?

LYNCH: Well, yes. That she was a classically and European trained philosophy professor, but I think what I was most surprised at was getting to know her through the story. She and I are not best friends. You know, I don't call her up. Hey, Angie, what's up? You know, but to get to know the person behind the icon and, in a sense, her humanity and her integrity, both political and otherwise, and this is whether I agree with her choices or not. I find her to be a fascinating figure because she's so clear in what she believes.

MARTIN: Let me read a letter, though, that we got from a listener after our interview with Jada Pinkett Smith aired. Jada Pinkett Smith, of course, was the executive producer - one of the executive producers of the film, helped it get distributed. This letter - and we did, you know, verify the person who wrote it. I'm not going to give his name. He says that - I am an African-American law enforcement officer and former corrections officer.

I understand Ms. Pinkett Smith had her own viewpoints, but I feel you are doing a huge disservice to the law enforcement community by not mentioning what Angela Davis actually did. She directly participated in a Black Panther party hostage taking attempt in a Marin County courthouse. The weapons Angela Davis bought two days prior were used by her 17-year-old bodyguard to murder a judge, a juror and a prosecutor.

She also had many communications with convicted Black Panther party members and, while never in an official member, she also defended this terrorist group that has murdered 17 law enforcement officers ranging from a national park service ranger to police officers and deputy sheriffs across the nation. Three of those murdered were African-Americans proudly serving their communities as law enforcement officers.

Now, this listener's criticism was directed at us, as a program, and I accept that, but I did want to ask whether you feel that your film, in part, either sanitizes or glamorizes what she did.

LYNCH: When we go into a story like this - when I go into a story like this, of course, you have a sense that somebody is probably guilty, that there is some gray area. And you asked me earlier what I was surprised by. I was surprised by the more I investigated, the less likely she seemed to be the mastermind.

So I do feel like she was tried in public and, if you just read the newspaper accounts, you're going to think she's guilty, but for those people, the 12 jurors who were a part of the case who sat through the whole trial month and month and week after week, who acquitted her on all charges, they had a different view. And I have the luxury of being able to dig through the FBI files, to talk to Angela, to talk to the various people that are part of this story.

Now, granted, many are dead, but I did talk to the judge. I talked to the FBI agent that tracked her down. And what's come to the surface is a sense that the jury was right in this instance, so I'm not quite sure how to respond. I do feel like she should have been tried, that what happened on August 7th was not a - it was not something to take lightly. A lot of people were killed. We will never know all the details. Too many people died.

MARTIN: I also do feel like I need to talk to you about the whole question of gun rights because that is a very big part of the story. I mean, part of her argument and the argument of others was that she had as much right to defend herself, to buy a gun in her own defense as anyone else. The film makes the point that she had been subject to ongoing and vicious threats from the moment she started teaching and the moment it was disclosed that she was a member of the communist party. How do you feel about all that? How do you feel about how this issue plays out in this film?

LYNCH: Well, you know, I mean, it feels like that period was a different time when people were arming themselves for self-defense and I think that the point that the Panthers were making and that Angela Davis was making is that you can't have one set of rules for one part of the society and another set of rules for another part of society. In other words, it was legal to have a gun, so you can't say, oh, black people, because you're scaring me, you can't have guns. And so we have figure out how to have laws that work in equitable ways and that allow all Americans a sense of safety, whether they want to own a gun or not.

MARTIN: What do you think accounts for her enduring allure? I'm wondering if you think she's as polarizing a figure as somebody like Jane Fonda. I mean, to this day, there are people who resent Jane Fonda for her role in the anti-war protests, who feel that she's a traitor and does not deserve any public honor or recognition at all.

I know that Angela Davis, as you mentioned, is still seen on t-shirts. She's still kind of an iconic figure for many people. Do you think she's as polarizing and what do you think accounts for her continuing allure to many people?

LYNCH: You know, the very thing that I think got her in the most trouble, the fact that she joined the communist party as a 26-year-old, is the very thing that saved her because there were communist parties all over the world. They immediately rallied to her side for due process, for a fair trial. And so you have "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners," the rallying cry that Fania talks about in the clip that you played and that was all over the world. And people were asking simply for due process.

You know, people want Angela Davis, the person, to be Angela Davis, the icon, and she's not. I think that's one of the biggest things that I learned through this film. I expected her to be, you know, angry and insistent and just fiercely political at every moment and she's not. She's actually quite shy. She's incredibly intellectual. She's thoughtful, she measured. She's all of these things that kind of counter the image that we know because the image is not her.

MARTIN: Shola Lynch is the director and the writer of the documentary, "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners." It is in theaters now around the country. She was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York.

Shola Lynch, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LYNCH: No problem. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Up next, Jason Holliday was out loud and proud about just about everything he did, even when that was a dangerous thing. He put it all out there in the 1960s documentary, "Portrait of Jason."

DENNIS DOROS: There's a lot of people who get it and just find it an astonishing work of art and other people just don't know what to do with a gay black man who is hustling.

MARTIN: Film archivist Dennis Doros spent years putting this masterpiece back together. He'll tell us how he did it. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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