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Free Angela and All Political Prisoners [Movie Review]


Free Angela and All Political Prisoners is a 2013 documentary directed by Shola Lynch about the events that led to Angela Davis’ arrest and prosecution. Davis was a college professor in California whose social activism put her at odds with various politicians, including the state’s then-governor, Ronald Regan. When associates of Davis created a hostage situation, she was implicated as being involved after the situation left four people dead. The hostile climate and looming accusations led to Davis going on the run and would land her on the FBI’s most-wanted list.


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Show Notes

Before Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, I was already aware of Angela Davis as far as having some basic knowledge about her story. I knew she was an academic who had studied overseas and come back to America where she became a professor in California. This is mostly because I knew of her link to the Black Panthers and Soledad Brothers. And in the present, I’ve seen her appear and offer commentary in various documentaries. Yet, I still haven’t gotten around to reading her autobiography.

When I came across Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, I thought it might be a good jumping-off point for learning more about her. It begins by offering a brief overview of her childhood in Alabama followed by her moving to Europe to study. I believe it was while watching 4 Little Girls about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church or maybe it was another documentary where she offered some insight into the feeling at the time of being a Black family living in Birmingham. They don’t delve very deeply into it here but you do get some insight into what it was like growing up in the Jim Crow South.

But Free Angela and All Political Prisoners is more focused on her time in California during the period of what I’d consider the later Civil Rights Movement. Or more accurately the Black Power and Black Pride Movements. Davis was in Europe during some parts of the early parts of the Civil Rights Movement. But as things progressed during the 60s and began to move more towards militancy, she felt it was important for her to come back to America and be a part of this period of the movement.

After returning to America she was offered a position in the University of California system and settled there. But then there was an uproar about her supposedly being a communist (I never get why people get all worked up about this). It’s worth noting that she had been invited to teach by the university. This wasn’t something that she pursued but rather that knowing of her educational achievements and qualifications, they thought that she would be a good match for their institution.

While she was settling in at the school, there was a growing movement in opposition to Davis. But often with controversy comes increased attention and curiosity. There’s some discussion of her first day of lecturing where she was speaking on the philosophy of Frederick Douglass and an estimated 2000 people showed up to attend the lecture. My college classes were typically quite small with maybe 25 students at most and those were core curriculum classes, major classes were smaller. None of my classes were in large lecture hall settings so classes with even 100 people boggle my mind.

You don’t see the person on screen but after the lecture, someone walks through the crowd with a camera asking the attendees their opinions. Two of the respondents have nothing but positive things to say stating that Davis is a gifted orator. Her points are described as being very concise and well put together so they were impressed with the information that she presented. They didn’t state whether or not they agreed but they showed appreciation for the way she expressed her ideas.

But then there was another guy who views her opinions as being an attack on what was then the structure of American democracy. He expresses the belief that while freedom of speech and first amendment rights are important it’s different when an individual is speaking out against the government. In his view, Davis pointing out flaws and calling for changes to the government is calling for the overthrow of the government. And thus he believes that her freedom of speech rights should be then curtailed.

He perceives her views as threatening the very democracy of America. And believes it’s better to have a limited democracy that exists for a long amount of time than to have a true democracy that exists for just a short period. That perspective was interesting. Here is someone who claims to value America and its principles but he’s willing to cast aside those principles at the first sign of someone disagreeing with him.

There’s a clip of Davis standing at the lectern but no audio from the first lecture. So it’s hard to have a direct opinion on what was said. But quite often when we have these discussions some claim to be for freedom of speech. That is until you touch on a topic where they disagree with your perspective. It’s completely acceptable for them to have different opinions but not for the opinions of others to differ from theirs.

This random guy on the college campus wasn’t the only person to feel this way. Reagan (then Governor of California) chimed in although it seems that he wasn’t present at the lecture. Davis was a member of the Communist Party and believed changing America’s social and political power structure would require a physical fight and possibly violence. Based on this, Reagan believed that there was no place for Davis in the state’s university system.

This clicked with me as it reminded me of my experience since I began creating content and especially videos for YouTube. Things are great when we all agree on a particular perspective. And a difference in opinion with some people can still result in incredible conversations.

But then other people can’t bear to have someone else have a different opinion as they believe their perspective is the only one that matters or should exist. And as part of that group are the people who think others shouldn’t even have conversations about topics with which they disagree or they think shouldn’t be discussed. They don’t recognize or rather can’t handle that while they have a right to their opinion, so do others. And that’s before even getting to the folks who can’t have a conversation in general but especially where opinions differ without being petty or offensive.

It’s important to note because it points to the difficulty in discussing possibly controversial subjects or topics about which people might hold strong opinions. This is why when it comes to topics like race, gender, and economics decades have gone by but we’re still discussing variations of the same issues. This happens in part because people have unstated motivations which result in no real efforts to cause change.

The best way to eliminate these issues is to have open and honest conversations. It’s fine to have differing opinions but everyone needs to be free to voice their opinions while also being willing to listen and understand. But some people have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Instead of these topics being a starting point for having an open conversation the response instead is to shut things down.

It’s a very self-centered way of moving about in the world. But the reality is that the world wasn’t made for one person to rule. No individual’s opinion is more important or relevant than another person’s. (Obviously, unless it’s specifically with regards to your life, then your opinion is paramount.) But this idea of my way is the one true way is a very closed-minded way of living and prevents people from growing.

It causes people to become so locked into their views and opinions that they don’t take into consideration that other people have had different experiences. In this instance, it was an attempt to preserve privilege and the status quo. But it can also be a sign of insecurity.

How strong are your convictions if they’re so threatened by someone simply having a different opinion? Is your belief in what you believe so fragile, that it’s threatened by someone believing something else? I can’t wrap my mind around that. Especially in this case where the discussion is taking place in an academic environment, a place where you would expect lively debate between thinkers.

The state’s Board of Regents and the governor were pushing for Davis to be removed from school. But the school’s chancellor and most of the school’s community were resistant to Davis being fired. It sounded very relevant in light of events that have taken place recently. You had politicians back then trying to dictate whose views should make them unfit for teaching. And you now have politicians trying to control what topics and subjects can be taught in schools.

Politicians back then were against Davis lecturing on America’s history of racism, its racist power structure, and what might need to occur to bring about change. And now in the present, you have people fighting against critical race theory or the theory of institutional racism being taught in schools. In both eras, you had individuals who were not academics but had their self-serving motivation for attempting to dictate what should or shouldn’t be taught based on their comfort and beliefs. I would ask the question then and now, what qualifications do you have to make such decisions? Or what fact-based research are you basing your opinions on?

Maybe they feared that the expression of Davis’ ideas might cause students to become communists or look into some of her other theories. Attempting to remove Davis from her position is along the lines of banning or burning books. This is an academic setting and these individuals are on a scholarly journey as they attempt to educate themselves. It’s not just learning the basics of math, science, etc. but also thinking and exploring new ideas.

College is a place where you go to learn and prepare yourself for a career. But hopefully to also further your ability to think and reason. To develop logic skills. Yet, there’s an effort to try and ensure that these students will be sheep. That they don’t have thoughts of their own. Or that whatever they believe is what you want them to believe.

Their approach to education is to teach the students just what they need to learn but nothing that might make them question the way that things are. It’s like they view education as a means of indoctrination rather than exploring more expansive thoughts, theories, and philosophies. I see that as being incredibly problematic.

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners then moved on to explain the situation that linked Davis to the Soledad Brothers. George Jackson was serving time at Soledad prison but he made constructive use of his time by becoming involved with the prison reform movement. Through that, he became connected to Angela Davis and the two formed an especially close relationship. George had a younger brother, Jonathan, who was still free on the outside.

A chain of events occurred which led to Jonathan being killed after taking hostages in a courtroom in an attempt to help three prisoners escape. The guns that he’d used had been purchased by Davis. A year later George was killed after prison guards alleged he started a riot at San Quentin prison and was seen in possession of a gun.

It was unclear to me how many guns Jonathan had but at least two of the guns belonged to Davis. There was no dispute over her ownership of the guns. Davis stated that she’d purchased the guns for protection as she had been receiving death threats as a result of the drama surrounding the attempt to fire her from her teaching position. Some assumed but she denied having given the guns to Jonathan and claimed to have not been involved in the escape plan.

As many people state, it is the right of American citizens to own firearms. And it sounds like Davis purchased four guns through legal means for her protection. Now sensing that she was being investigated, Davis decided to go underground to avoid being arrested or otherwise detained by the police for questioning. I don’t think she’d been charged with anything at that point but simply wanted to avoid contact with the authorities.

One might ask, why not go in and answer whatever questions the police might have. But by this point she already had problems with the state government and the FBI was looking at her. Davis was also affiliated with though not an official member of the Black Panthers. And by this point, several activists in the general Civil Rights Movement had been outright assassinated and now in the Black Power Movement, others had died or been imprisoned under questionable circumstances.

She’d seen how violent and oppressive the government could be when it came to individuals that it considered a threat. In the interest of self-preservation, she decided to avoid having contact with law enforcement by going on the run. We get an understanding of both sides of this now fugitive chase. Davis was trying to lay low while moving around the country to avoid arrest but there’s also insight into how the authorities ended up tracking her down.

After her capture, Davis explained her rationale to journalists who asked why she ran. She explained it might be difficult to understand for people whose experiences allow them to maintain their faith in the justice system. But based on her knowledge of what had been done to the Black Panthers and other individuals and organizations, it seemed like the best choice. As a Black person, and especially with her history of institutional racism, she did not believe that the justice system would treat her fairly. This was also why so many activists fled the country when possible rather than going through with trials as they felt they wouldn’t have a fair shot going up against the full weight of the American justice system.

There was then a discussion of details of the court case and how the legal strategy and selection of attorneys came together. There was a conflict of interest for many of the individuals, such as judges and prosecutors, who would have been involved with this case. So they had to pull in outside people to serve in their place. The court found an alternate judge and instead of a regular prosecutor there was the state attorney general or someone along those lines.

There is also some insight into the legal strategy as far as how the prosecution presented their case in comparison to the defense’s presentation. The prosecution typically has more resources and in this case, was able to provide multiple witnesses and exhibits. Meanwhile, with fewer resources, the defense just focused on refuting the prosecution’s story which I thought was a very smart move.

Part of this strategy was the need to humanize Davis as by this point there had been public commentary from President Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover who was head of the FBI, and Ronald Reagan the then governor of California. All of these politicians speaking publicly about the case painted Davis as being an out-of-control and bloodthirsty criminal. This made it incredibly important to change the perception of Davis because the case had begun to be prosecuted in the media.

Expecting the defense to present character witnesses, I was surprised by the decision to have Davis present the defense’s opening argument. I didn’t know a defendant could do that. It was a smart move as it allowed Davis to tell the jury about herself without actually getting on the stand which would have opened her up to being cross-examined by the prosecution.

Leading up to this, we get some insight into Davis’ state of mind while she was being held in custody. She experienced being isolated from the other prisoners as a means of trying to break her. There was a struggle within for Davis to maintain her sanity and focus on the hope or end goal despite the loneliness. Some of this is like your typical courtroom drama but it’s a bit different because there were protests in support of Davis taking place around the world. It increased attention on the case and also guided some of Davis’ and her legal team’s decisions.

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners is a great overview of maybe not the complete life of Angela Davis but rather this very specific period in her life. It was crazy to see the progression of how quickly her situation deteriorated. Imagine going from being a respected academic working as a college professor to being on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Going through all of this at that time and not knowing how it would work out was probably incredibly stressful. And even having gone through it and come out on the other side, I would be surprised if she doesn’t get emotional thinking back on that time.

Imagine you’re a scholar studying overseas in Europe and decide to come back to America to get involved with the late Civil Rights Movement. You connect with the Black Panther Party but realize that some aspects of their organization don’t fit your ideology. You try to find some other way to get involved in a manner that feels natural to you.

An opportunity to teach presents itself which seems like a safe enough way to be active. Only to find yourself singled out as being a threat. Then you begin receiving death threats and the situation continues to escalate from there.

Something that’s pointed out is that it wouldn’t have been logical for Davis to have provided Jonathan with guns to carry out the escape plan. Let’s say that she was a co-conspirator in this plot to help free these prisoners. It wouldn’t make sense for her to go to I’m assuming a gun shop or something along those lines to legally purchase guns that are intended for use in a crime.

Playing devil’s advocate, it’s not explained how exactly Jonathan ended up with two of the guns that she purchased. But I would assume that it would make more sense that maybe he stole the guns from her. Davis had four guns and he had more than two guns but only two of the guns had been purchased by Davis. How and why did he procure the other guns from somewhere else if Davis had two other guns that were not in Jonathan’s possession?

This is someone’s life so not to make light of it but as a true crime and espionage fan, I got caught up in Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. It’s like an outlaw story and courtroom drama combined. Several prominent figures were assassinated during the 1960s. And in that climate, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to feel like there are people out there who wouldn’t hesitate to do you harm. She wasn’t unreasonably paranoid to be scared as threats were being issued by both individuals and the government.

Politicians and other government officials were speaking to the media about Davis as though she was a threat to America. Davis could have been just going about her day and some vigilante spots or is stalking her and decides to do her harm. Who would trust the legal system if parts of that system are the cause of many of your problems?

When Davis was arrested and offered bail, they had to go through a whole process of trying to get the money together. A California farmer stepped forward and offered to put his farm up to help Davis make her bond. This was just a regular man who believed in freedom of speech. As Americans, people have a fundamental right to speak their beliefs honestly and openly with no fear of undue persecution or retribution. This man wasn’t an activist, anarchist, or revolutionary but he put up the money because of his principles. And in return, he also began receiving death threats.

It’s just this constant thing of anyone whose beliefs differ from the status quo being viewed as expendable. There was a developing idea that it’s acceptable to threaten the lives of people because they believe differently than you. That a difference of opinion gives someone the right to threaten or attempt to end your life.

The 60s was a period of attempted tremendous change although its effectiveness can be debated. But there was some hypocrisy at play. You had these politicians speaking out about Angela Davis. They took issue with her stating that revolution and struggle sometimes require violence and bloodshed. She never said that people should go out and kill or maim for change.

Davis wasn’t wrong as throughout history and even during that era, calls for change were met with fierce and sometimes violent resistance. I don’t think she was even necessarily saying that the individuals seeking change would be the ones to utilize violence. As we see here, what ends up happening is that the people who were looking to keep things the same were the ones that utilized violence in an attempt to maintain their power and control.

They were so up in arms about her speaking about the reality that there might be acts of violence in pushing for this revolution. And they attempted to spin her words by assuming that she was calling for violence. Consider Malcolm X who spoke about self-defense and Black independence. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about equality for all people regardless of their race or creed while being nonviolent. Neither of these men was found to have been involved in any acts of violence. But that didn’t prevent them from being assassinated.

So much attention is paid to the Revolutionary War and America’s fight for justice. These conflicts with Davis were taking place about two to three decades after the end of World War II. So much is made of the fight against tyranny. The fight for the preservation of democracy, humanity, and human rights around the world. America then positioned itself as a great hero on the world stage because the country fought against Germany.

But then back here in America, you see that it’s much of the same. Here you have it, that in America, individuals who speak out against what they perceive as being wrongdoing, committed by the government or structural issues in society are perceived as being a threat to the state. It was wrong when Germany did it but it’s ok for America to commit such heinous acts against Black people.

How does that make you any different from Nazi Germany? How are you fighting for the preservation of democracy if, in the process, you’re arguing as to why you should be able to curtail democracy, civil liberties, and personal rights?

Essentially, you’re arguing for the right to practice tyranny. To put in place a dictatorship as a means of preserving democracy makes no kind of sense. What you’re calling for is democracy on your terms and your terms only. So not democracy in the sense of we all get together to collaborate, communicate, and compromise. That a person as the self-appointed leader decides what should be done and we just all follow suit, and that’s not at all democracy. Yet, when people push back against this they’re regarded as being anti-American. It’s hypocritical across the board.

This is a relatively short film as it clocks in at just about an hour and a half. But there’s so much information packed in. The focus is on the life of Angela Davis or more accurately, this period in the life of Angela Davis. You can then extrapolate some of that commentary onto a broader scale. There’s a lot said here about American society in general. But explaining those points through the experience of Angela Davis helped to scale the issues down to where they felt more humanized. It’s definitely a documentary worth checking out.

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