*Among the films premiering at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival [TIFF] was a documentary about political activist, author and scholar Angela Davis that was produced to coincide with the 40th anniversary of her famous acquittal.
In August 1970, the then UCLA professor was charged with the aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder of a California judge. She had purchased the firearms used by a 17-year-old high school student, Jonathan Jackson, to gain control of a San Marin County courtroom and take Judge Harold Haley, the prosecutor, and three female jurors as hostages.
As Jackson attempted to drive away with his hostages and two convicts, police fired upon the car. The judge, the prosecutor, one of the jurors, Jackson and the two convicts were all killed during the shootout. In California, “all persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense,” can be held liable.
Because Davis was accused of purchasing the guns used in the attack, including the shotgun that killed Judge Haley, a warrant for her arrest was issued — and Davis became a fugitive. On August 18, 1970, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made Davis the third woman and the 309th person to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.
Interviews with her lawyers, FBI agents involved in the case, news reports and reenactments are intertwined to document Davis’ journey throughout her imprisonment, trial and subsequent acquittal in the film “Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners.” [Scroll down to watch the trailer.]
“I wanted to make the film because what I knew of her was the afro,” said the film’s director Shola Lynch during its Q&A panel in Toronto. “I thought I knew the story, and as I began to do just the bare minimum of research, I realized there is a woman behind the icon, and I was interested in knowing how she developed from a young philosophy professor into a political icon. What are the choices that she made, what were the intended and unintended consequences? And as I researched that, I realized that it was a political crime drama. And I said, ‘This is a great story.’”
Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation production companies have signed on as executive producers for “Free Angela,” throwing financial support behind the project that managed to make history with its TIFF screening. It was the first time in the festival’s 37-year history that a non-music documentary was screened as a gala film.
“We thought when we saw this film that it has the kind of emotional depth and historic scope that really made sense for it to be playing alongside other gala films,” said festival organizer Thom Powers.
“We at Overbrook Entertainment are very proud to support this intriguing documentary about the life of Angela Davis,” Jada Pinkett Smith explained in a press release. “Filmmaker Shola Lynch has done an incredible job in revealing a piece of American history we thought we all knew.”
Jay-Z also added, “Shola Lynch has crafted an intricate and compelling film about Angela Davis. Roc Nation is honored to be a part of a creative collective that can present such a riveting story.”
Below, Angela Davis explains why she was initially “reluctant” to participate in Shola Lynch’s film, and why she eventually changed her mind.
The film has yet to pick up an American distributor, but will be released in France on Dec. 5. Watch the trailer below.