Let me be completely frank and upfront about this – the world could very much use a fine documentary about Angela Davis. She’s a fascinating woman, extremely intelligent and eloquent. A continental philosopher who rose to a level of prominence within the American political left, her tale is a fascinating one on almost every level, even if one excludes the case that saw her run for months from the law.
That said, this is not that documentary.
Free Angela is extremely polished, there is no doubt. It’s production values cannot be faulted, its key participants on first glance seem to be open and honest on camera. The film’s biggest fault, however, is that in over 100+ minutes we don’t have a single instance where the myth of Ms. Davis is challenged in any way.
As we’re in the midst of American campaign season, it’s easy to see another model for this type of film, the tightly crafted and curated 10 minute campaign videos that introduce each leader of the party at their convention. Seen in isolation, with the slow panning photographs and softly lit talking-head interviews, they’re films meant to both inspire and cast favourable light on their subjects.
It’s indicative of the faults with Free Angela that Davis herself, her sister, he other supporters, are never asked a single difficult question. We never hear just how that young man got guns that were registered to Professor Davis and used in turn in an act of brutality. We get caveats, and indications of the complexity of the situation, but not once is the question put in any serious way to our central character.
This is inexcusable.
Free from the smallest amounts of confrontation, Davis is allowed free reign to tell her story her way. This is of course entirely her right, and may well have been the agreement that the scholar/activist made with director Shola Lynch before filming began. However, this makes for a pretty poor doc. It reeks of a “preaching to the choir” mentality, and with the smallest of indications of some form of (even feigned) objectivity, the film may have come across less as a giant commercial for Davis.
It’s no small irony that “whitewash” is the first thing that comes to mind when you step back from the admittedly compelling story that Davis tells. This is not to say that there aren’t specific answers to some of these questions, nor that the preposterous of her trial isn’t in and of itself interesting fodder for a documentary. Instead, the film attempts to suggest far more general, if not objective terms (the title of course alludes to all political prisoners ), rather than just a laser-like focus on one woman’s perspective. What comes across instead is the reconceptualizing of Davis’ story, as more time is spent on justifying her severing the trial from her alleged co-conspirator than it is spent on what her role in the events actually was.
If the defence argument was that she was too smart to have her guns used in a crime, than how can we also buy she was so naïve as to let the guns out of her control? This is but one small part of the film’s blind-spot, as it unfolds without seriously providing contrary points of view or context in the story. There is the inclusion of the retired FBI agent, and his comments prove to be both fair and often quite amusing, but these amount to a few drops in an ocean of accolades.
It’s tough to slam this work, it’s clearly made with a great deal of love and passion for its participants. It would be equally unfair to let its obvious flaws go unchecked. The work has already garnered celebrity endorsements, and there’s obviously a hunger to hear her story told. The film is fooling itself when trying to be anything more than a general celebration of all things Angela. Any claims to be speaking about political prisoners in general, or even those participants in the activities that led to Davis’ arrest and subsequent release, are empty.
Free Angela is little more than a campaign ad, serving to rehabilitate Davis’ legacy for those that think of her as little more than a radical and fugitive from justice. It’s a puff piece of a film, in the end it could have been, it should have been, much more than merely this.