Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners

Run, don't walk, to the AMC Century City, where a superior documentary with the unwieldy title "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners" plays through Thursday. Shola Lynch's film about the brilliant philosophy professor Angela Davis, fired by UCLA in 1969 for her membership in the Communist Party and charged with capital homicide when some guns she had purchased to protect herself from death threats were used in the abduction and murder of a Marin County judge, beautifully and with Davis' own wry humor interweaves personal history, social and racial politics, the exquisite tension of the finest courtroom drama, and a treasure trove of images and video footage, setting it all to a soundtrack that keens and wails with primal intensity.

Lynch is aided immeasurably by the undimmed memories of those she has interviewed, including Davis herself as well as key players and supporters of every color and way of life, from UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young, whose brave decision to uphold Davis' academic freedom was undone by the Regents (under political pressure from, inter alia, then-Governor Reagan), to the white raisin farmer from Fresno who staked his family farm as collateral for Davis' bail bond, to her largely black defense team, whose theories and stratagems were worthy of Perry Mason. (At one point, attorney Leo Branton got one eyewitness to ID Davis with metaphysical certitude, only to be told he'd actually identified another black woman with an Afro in Davis' friends box.)

The film conjures up the social milieu and unrest of the time in a way that feels anything but musty. Along the way, it touches on matters as varied as the intersection of the civil rights struggle and the counterculture, how it feels to contemplate one's own possible execution, and the ignominious history of gun control as a tool of racial subjugation (not for nothing was the purchase and use of guns in self-defense the fundamental plank of the Black Panther platform). My only nit to pick - the only thing keeping the film from four full stars - is that it ends abruptly with Davis' acquittal. I'd have loved to hear Davis and some of Lynch's other talking heads put the trial in historical context and comment on its aftereffects and where Davis' movement went. The film's title echoes Davis' remonstrations that the rallies and fundraisers held for her stand for something more than one person. What is that something, and what happened to it?

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