The 'D' Is Not Silent: Free Angela and All Political Prisoners

US militant Angela Davis (C) salutes Cuban workers with her hard hat in October 1972 in Havana during her visit to Cuba. (Pho
US militant Angela Davis (C) salutes Cuban workers with her hard hat in October 1972 in Havana during her visit to Cuba. (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

The opening scene of the new documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, directed by Shola Lynch, features a silhouetted image of what is unmistakably Angela Davis -- the Angela Davis that we think we know circa 1972. For Lynch this is a fitting way to introduce a film about one of the most recognizable icons of the Black Freedom Movement, yet a figure that has largely been caricatured as a sexy, afroed Super(s)hero. Davis' image has circulated throughout our culture with little regard to the politics that produced her -- or the work and ideas that she continues to produce. As Davis has lamented, "I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion; it is humbling because... encounters with the younger generation demonstrate the fragility and mutability of historical images." ("Afro-Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia" in Soul: Black Power, Politics, and Pleasure, ed. Guillory & Green)

Like her previous film, Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004), Lynch offers a loving, generous, yet critically astute view of a black woman political icon, whose story has often received short-shrift in comparison to some of her male comrades.

Whereas "Black is Beautiful... Free Huey!" is one of the most memorable slogans from the Black Freedom Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, "Free Angela And All Political Prisoners" -- the "all political prisoners" added at Davis' insistence according to Bettina Aptheker in the film -- doesn't seem to possess the same cultural capital. That Davis' body and image is so present in our memories highlights the ways that modes of charismatic leadership often silences voices like Angela Davis'. As Erica Edwards writes in her book Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership, "charisma participates in a gendered economy of political authority in which the attributes of the ideal leader are the traits American society usually conceives as rightly belonging to men or to normative masculinity." (21)

Lynch's Free Angela and All Political Prisoners pivots on three aspects of the Angela Davis story -- the most obvious and well known being her implication in the murder of Superior Court Judge Harold Haley. The judge was killed in what was a botched attempt to free the Soledad Brothers -- George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette -- who were accused of killing prison guard John Mills in California's Soledad Prison. George Jackson's teenage brother Jonathan, who helped plan the escape plot, was killed in the incident.

At the time Judge Haley's death, Davis was embroiled in a battle with the University of California Board of Regents and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who fired Davis from her position at UCLA months earlier for so-called "unprofessional behavior" in response to the revelation that Davis was a member of the American Communist Party. Davis, who purchased several guns in order to protect herself in the face of death threats became a convenient scapegoat in the murder of Judge Haley, when the guns used in the escape and kidnapping were traced to her. Fearing for her life, Davis became a fugitive for several months, becoming only the third woman to be named on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list.

The story of Davis' flight, the coast-to-coast search for her and the subsequent trial would have made a fine post-modern escaped slave narrative in its own right (don't get no ideas, Tarantino), but the brilliance of Lynch's film is her focus on the national and international response to Davis' capture and imprisonment and the tender personal relationship between Davis and George Jackson.

Much of the media framing of Davis' case and part of the prosecutorial strategy was to raise the question of how a "good girl" -- in reference Davis's middle-class background and elite education -- had "gone bad." A Life Magazine cover from September of 1970 -- where a shadowy Davis appears under the caption "the making of a fugitive" -- was typical. Yet packaged with this good girl gone wrong narrative was the overt sexualization of Davis, in which she functions an erotic "pinup" girl who just happens to appear on "Most Wanted" posters in the post office. In her recent book Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman, Lakesia D. Johnson reminds readers that the "compulsion to return to Davis' physical attributes (eyes, mouth, hair) shows how sexual objectification is used to harness her power as a black woman." (19)

The prosecuting attorney in Davis' trial -- the State's Assistant Attorney General Albert Harris, Jr. -- made a even finer point to undermine Davis' political and cultural authority, by arguing that Davis was not drawn into her support of the Soledad Brothers simply on the basis of her political ideology, but on the basis of her unbridled passion for the group's most visible figure, George Jackson. Harris' move to portray Davis as simply a "horny" sycophant -- however wrong and problematic -- was shrewd, in no small part, due to the fact it would raise questions with black communities about Davis' "fitness" as a political martyr. Davis offered a sharp contrast to other black women figures who served that role -- think of popular depictions of Rosa Parks -- both in terms of her willingness to "think out loud" and her sartorial choices.

To their credit, Davis legal team also understood the gender and sexual politics surrounding Davis' case, and made the equally surprising move of having Davis offer the defenses' opening statement, allowing her to tell her story, without having to take the stand and be cross-examined. With the State possessing only circumstantial evidences -- largely unraveled by the simple question, "Why would Davis purchase guns in her name that would be used in a prison break?" -- Davis was acquitted (by an all-white jury) of all charges on June 4, 1972, after only 13 hours of deliberation.

Davis, who participated in the making of the documentary, is a powerful voice throughout the film, providing needed context for much of the film's arresting archival footage. Yet, Lynch never seems to defer to Davis, finding the truth of Davis' life, without having the film degenerate into a hagiography. The moment where Lynch captures Davis in a moment of wistful desire for the young George Jackson is priceless. Davis and Jackson's relationship is deserving of its own film, perhaps directed by a figure like Ava Duvernay, whose Middle of Nowhere owes part of its inspiration to the legacy of the Soledad Brothers and Davis' own work addressing the Prison Industrial Complex.

Lynch is to be lauded for recovering for public consumption, Angela Davis the thinker, who has since gone on to become one of the more influential thinkers and activist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There is much at stake in this recovery, as Edwards notes, "In the years after the FBI's 'cycle of terror' against her, Davis's hairstyle and clothing have become commodity fetishes that present black radicalism as a series of exchangeable disarticulated moments that position male consumers as privileged buyers in a sellers market of black activist objects." (145)

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners will be released as selected AMC theaters on April 5, 2013 in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Oakland, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Overbrook Entertainment and Roc Nation are among the film's executive producers.