Free Angela Davis Director Shola Lynch: "Our history is being held hostage by corporations"

Aug 22, 2013 at 4:00 am
Angela Davis.
Angela Davis. Lionsgate Publicity

Director Shola Lynch has been mining the rich terrain of black American history for a while now, notably in the award-winning 2004 documentary Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed, about the 1972 presidential campaign by the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American and the first woman to mount a serious, credible run for the office, and most recently with last year's Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners, her soulful, illuminating documentary about the activist icon's notorious 1971 trial on charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. (The DVD was just released this week.)

Where much official history (even that of radical movements) still places men at the locus of celebration and inquiry, Lynch's ongoing artistic/journalistic project is the reclamation of the contributions black women have made to struggles for freedom. In a recent conversation, she spoke about black female agency, struggles to get her films made, and why Harriet Tubman deserves so much better than the tasteless caricaturing she recently received via Russell Simmons's YouTube channel, All Def Digital.

Have you been able to follow any of the social media conversations sparked by #solidarityisforwhitewomen or #blackpowerisforblackmen? If so, what is your take on those hashtag conversations, the fact that they're still even necessary in the wake of the work and activism of people like Ms. Chisolm, Ms. Davis, and countless others?

Actually, I've been more in tune with the recent Russell Simmons controversy over the parody Harriet Tubman "sex tape." I guess that is the only way he could imagine Ms. Tubman being empowered to be an antislavery freedom-fighter--that sex, in the end, is a woman's best and only weapon. The good news is that he's now talking about putting funds into a Harriet Tubman movie--and I've been developing one. How about it, @UncleRUSH?

But to answer your question more directly, I think these types of discussions will always be necessary as long as we are divorced from the powerful stories in our past. Each generation tends to think they have a leg up on the previous one. In some ways that's true, with technological changes especially. In other ways, it is just not. We have so much to learn from reclaiming our history through the lens of our agency. Things have changed, but as the lessons are lost, we have to re-remember them. I definitely feel that way about both Chisholm and Davis. I was drawn to those stories because they erase some of the perceived invisibility of my group: black women. What I admire about both of them is that their lack of agency by their race and gender station didn't even occur to them--well, at least not enough to stop them.

Given the research you did for both your films, I'm wondering what you might have learned about organizing, strategic vision, coalition-building, and weathering political and legal setbacks that can be applied to activism now in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, Stand Your Ground Laws, stop-and-frisk policies, statistics that show that every 28 hours a black person is murdered by a policeman or vigilante ...

That you have to be strategic and meet people where they are in their mindset. The tragedy of the Zimmerman verdict is that it was more of an indictment of Trayvon Martin. Martin was on trial, too. The prosecution did not address that well for the jury; in other words, [they] did not meet the jury where its mindset was regarding race and class as opposed to where it should have been. It is like me making a film that confuses people and then blaming racism or the audience for its confusion, when in fact I would be responsible for not doing my job well.

How do  you, as a filmmaker whose content is about politics and political figures, and whose films are therefore political, define your work and yourself in relationship to the kind of work you do? I ask because I realize that I opened the interview with questions that are somewhat presumptuous--that because your films thus far have strong political content and social commentary and are centered on iconic black women activists/politicians, that you could be a political analyst in a larger sense, when that may have nothing to do with how you see yourself.

I'm an armchair commentator, like any good New Yorker/Harlemite, but only when I know the facts. With my films, my job is to unearth as much of the truth as I can. I like facts. I like investigating. Which brings up one of my pet peeves about Free Angela: I've had reporters assume--as in, not ask me--or accuse me of making some kind of Angela Davis puff piece. Come on. While I realize that it's inconvenient to be a black woman who makes a film about a black woman--who turns out in the end to be innocent--immediately I become suspect, as though I can't be objective. Come on, people!

I read that it took you ten years to get  Free Angela  made. Is it true that it took that long? How much time was necessary just for the research, and how much for filming and actually putting the film together?

It took eight years to make Free Angela. My husband and children have never known me not working on the film. This has been a hard film to make for so many reasons. One, funding. A third of the budget came from France raised through producers there, De Films en Aiguille. And believe it or not, BET put in a significant amount, specifically Loretha Jones, who came in when I had half the budget raised to give us what I thought would be enough to finish. That was 2010. At that point, I could be in production in earnest. In January of 2012, when the cut was nearly locked, we realized we needed to raise even more to cover the cost of licensing the archival footage. While the archives worked with us on rates--I can say with certainty that our history is being held hostage by corporations--our partners gave more, the Ford Foundation and Canal Plus especially, but it was still not enough. I started sending what I called the "Hail Mary" e-mails to anyone who had ever said, "I can help you raise funds for Free Angela." A friend from around the way in Harlem answered the call. She connected the project with her friend Jada Pinkett Smith. She contributed some finishing funds and really helped promote the theatrical release.

Or to answer your question another way: If I had been fully funded from the beginning, the doc would have taken four to five years.

How much time was spent convincing Ms. Davis to participate in the film? What finally won her over?

It took nearly a year to talk Angela into it. What finally convinced her? Not me, but my work. She finally saw Chisholm '72 and said, "I thought I knew that story." But she said it in a way that made me realize that there was so much about [Chisholm's] story she couldn't know, and finally wanted to know.

I'm really interested in the construction of  Free Angela, because I think one of the reasons it works so powerfully is that it almost plays like a fiction thriller. Even folks familiar with the case are on the edge of their seats as the trial unfolds. Can you talk a bit about how you chose to construct the film's narrative?

First of all, I believe the narrative element is important in docs, too, especially historical docs, because if I say "historical doc" you're probably already tuning out or falling asleep. There is extreme prejudice that a doc will be important but boring. The best ones never are. They are also tremendously well-told stories. More specifically, for Free Angela, the construction works because the story is actually a political crime drama, and that is how the people that lived the story experienced it. The construction works because it's authentic.

The use of Max Roach's music in  Free Angela was a subtle but masterful stroke of commentary. How did you come to choose it? Was it difficult securing the rights?

The music is a really important part of the storytelling. Every time I start a project, I pick a song to listen to obsessively when doing the conceptual work. For Free Angela, it was "Triptych" from the album Freedom Now Suite. It's something about Max Roach's drums and also Abbey Lincoln's voice--and that scream. That musical, melodic, horrifying, painful scream captures the social, political, and cultural turmoil of the times, which are manifested in the crime that happens on August 7, 1970. It is painful and confusing for everyone involved. Lincoln's voice captures that perfectly.

The Max Roach estate was amazingly kind to us. I cannot thank the family enough for sharing the song with Free Angela.

It is also important to note that "Angela's Theme Song" and the rest of the music were composed by Vernon Reid especially for the doc. His guitar hits all the notes of her personality, from the hard to the soft. In fact, Vernon helped me find Angela's sweetness. He is a tough-guy rock star, but also extremely intellectual and surprisingly sentimental. Sorry, Vernon! I hope I'm not ruining your rep. I think he nailed the music.

Watching  Chisholm '72  and Free Angela back-to-back recently, I was struck by the overlap of the moments when they were each breaking down barriers and rewriting the rules of possibility for not only people of color, women of color, but for the country itself. In your opinion, what are the similarities in their characters, politics, and approaches to political life?

The similarity is their strength. I don't mean the typical strength assigned to black women, to endure victimization. It is the exact opposite. Chisholm and Davis share the ability to never see themselves as victims. They only exist to themselves as active agents in their lives, and as a result history. Whether we agree with their politics, seeing this dynamic at work in the context of nuanced storytelling is, I hope, inspiring.

What did you learn about each woman that you didn't already know?

Their sense of humor. Both Chisholm and Davis have a great sense of humor. In fact, it wasn't until the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival that I realized how funny, as in absurd, some parts of Free Angela are. The audience laughed out loud. I hesitate to say this because the doc is definitely not a comedy.

What would you want viewers to take away from the films--about the women, about the eras in which they were doing such risky and dangerous work?

I don't think either Chisholm or Davis saw their actions as risky or dangerous, just necessary. They were called by a situation to stand up or shut-up. They both chose to stand up. 

As Free Angela made its way in the world, what surprised you or caught you off guard in conversation about the film? What annoyed you?

I didn't know how funny parts of the film are, as I already mentioned. I'm annoyed that some reporters assume that, as a black woman, I can't be objective about telling the story of another black woman. One reporter even accused me of hiding a critical fact around the guns. That is just nuts. It would be far better for my career if all my research unearthed that she was guilty; it just didn't turn out that way.

Are you working on anything right now? Are you at liberty to talk about it?

I'd like to get the Free Angela book project off the ground. There are so many newly unearthed facts that I'd like to add to the narrative. But don't worry--it's nothing that changes the narrative or outcome of the doc, but only makes [things] more clear.

My next movie project will be re-imaging Harriet Tubman. I'll make a short experimental doc to research and write the script for the action movie, which I'll direct. Tubman's power is that she could cloak herself in invisibility. In other words, she literally used others' low expectations of her against them. She used her powers to liberate herself but then also thousands of others from bondage. She was truly a legendary antislavery freedom-fighter. We should remember her that way. Incidentally, there is a love story in there, too.