Interview: Shola Lynch on How Will Smith, Jay-Z and Vernon Reid Helped the Making of ‘Free Angela and All Political Prisoners’


This two-part interview was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, 2012.

One of two documentaries premiering as part of the Gala Presentation at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is Free Angela & All Political Prisoners. The film profiles legendary activist Angela Davis and chronicles her relation to and trial for alleged involvement in the deadly 1970 Marin County courthouse incident. Davis also took part in the film on screen, speaking out about that period for the first time.

To help get Angela’s story out properly, filmmaker Shola Lynch (Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed) was able to involve the assistance or talent of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith (through their company, Overbrook Entertainment), Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, actress Eisa Davis (Hart of Dixie) and Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis (Crash).

I talked to Lynch this week during the festival, and some of the interview covered the roles of all these people, so I’ve broken the conversation up into two parts. This is the celebrity-filled installment:

DOC Channel Blog: What does it mean for this film to be part of the Gala Presentation this year?

Shola Lynch: It’s never happened before for a documentary that is not a music documentary. What a gala is, it’s a very large venue and there’s a red carpet and a lot of press attention. I think there are only eight galas out of the hundreds of films. These are their special picks, in a way. So you get a lot of attention that you might not get otherwise. People will check you out before they completely dismiss you. And when you’re making a historical documentary about a black militant.

All I want is the opportunity for somebody to give me a chance. I think it’s a good film. Hopefully it’s a good story. You can go along for the ride, whether you agree with the politics or not, or whether you agree with her choices or not. When Toronto says Free Angela & All Political Prisoners is a gala, on the business side and from the audience perspective, it’s like, “Yeah, let me check it out, I’m curious. Why do they like it so much?”

So it’s helping the film get seen, then?

It gives you a little bit of a leg up, that’s for sure. Just having a gala and doing the red carpet was so much fun. And it’s spectacular to see it on such a large screen. The theater of the Roy Thomson Hall is like a symphony space. There are three balconies. This festival has just exceeded my expectations in every possible way. I mean, I’m not sure what to expect, but it’s bigger than what we do for docs usually.

The audience really responded to the piece. I was very nervous about that big, public screening. There is no escaping the audience reaction. When 2,000 people are laughing or clapping or sighing or crying, you get a sense of, oh, this is the audience respondse to the work. Oh my god! In fact, there’s more humor in the film than I realized. People were enjoying the story and laughing at certain points. It’s not laugh at. It’s not “ha ha” funny, but sometimes life is ridiculous.

Now I’m trying to think of where I might have laughed. I watched the film by myself, so it was obviously a very different experience.

Exactly. It’s a different experience than when you’re sitting in the theater with people, the community that is involved with that. There’s a lot of stuff to be missed on the tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny screen.

free angela premiere

How did the Smiths and Jay-Z come onto the project? Certainly it helped having celebrities involved as far as getting the red carpet treatment and attention, too.

It absolutely helped. They have their own audiences. They have people who follow them, who are their fans. So they’ll check it out, give us a chance, because they’re attached to it. It’s an incredible leg up. In a way, all of our partners have their own audiences, but when you have Overbrook and Roc Nation, they add a celebrity dimension to it. It means we get a little extra press. It means everyone asks about it, and there’s a curiosity of “why would they attach their names to something? What is it about this story?”

But the film has to be good, too. It only adds. I don’t think it’s possible just to have a celebrity involved for a not very good film and for it to do well. But if you have a good film and that’s possible, it does help.

You call this film “historical verite.” Did you coin that term?

Yeah. That’s a Shola Lynch original. I come up with all kinds of corny stuff. I try to rename things all the time. Even recreations. This is kind of a funny story. You know, obviously, there are recreations in this, and I hated the word “recreations,” so I came up with a new word for it. I changed the script so everywhere it said “recreations,” I replaced it with the word “vignette.” I made everybody in the office say “vignette” instead of “recreation.”

And we had a meeting with one of our consultants, Paul Haggis. He came in and we’re talking about the film. He watched it, and he said something like, “oh, the recreations.” I said, “they’re vignettes!” And he looked at me and laughed out loud, and then said, “yes, the recreations,” and kept going. He totally smacked me down. He said it’s ridiculous. The way he did it was so smart and hilarious. I realized, okay, vignette is not really going to work. It’s just weird and pretentious. He didn’t say that, but that was kind of his demeanor and attitude. So I went back to the script and changed all the “vignette”s with “recreation”s. I decided they just need to be good.

I saw that Angela’s niece played her in those scenes, and I thought that was just a cute touch but then realized she’s a working actress, Eisa Davis.

Yeah. She’s recognized as a great actress in her own right, on the stage and in movies, and she’s also a playwright. And a musician. She’s quite a good singer, also. But the thing is, on top of it she’s Angela’s niece. I wouldn’t have done it if it was just Angela’s niece. She was qualified for the job. Frankly, she was the best person for it. If it were a InarrativeI movie, she’s not age appropriate. Angela was 26. But because she’s silhouetted and Eisa is so smart and she also knows her aunt so very well, she actually embodies her in a way that I could not quite have anticipated. I knew she would be good, and I knew she was open to it, which meant that I could direct her. But there are certain ways that she moves her body that are just so spot on.


Could there ever be a Davis biopic now? I’m surprised there hasn’t been one yet.

You couldn’t have gotten the rights to it. She wouldn’t have done it. But now I think she might. That would be my dream, to either produce or direct or have a hand in any of the writing of the narrative version.

But do we need it? I feel like this kind of negates any need for a dramatized version. Obviously there is a lot of people who don’t go to documentaries, unfortunately. And Hollywood likes to at least announce plans to remake docs, so I could see it happening. Especially with the big names already attached to the project.

I know. It’s possible. But I think Overbrook. It was Jada Pinkett Smith. This is what happened with that. We had the money for production, had it saved up from development grants. Believe it or not, BET bought the U.S. television rights, complete with a window for theatrical. They knew I wanted it on the big screen first. They gave up all the rights in terms of VOO, etc. But we were in production and it became clear that the cost Iwas more .

Really it was the film, itself, that brought them on board. It was Jada. She saw it and said, “What can I do?” We needed to raise a lot more money to license the footage. It was just outrageous, the cost. It was three or four times what I had budgeted. I was afraid I wasn’t going to finish the film. So she showed it to her husband and everybody at Overbrook, and they brought in Roc Nation.

How did you get Vernon Reid to do the score?

Everyone asks me that question.

Well, the music is quite unusual, in a really great way. The film doesn’t feature the expected pop songs of the era, protest songs or blaxploitation soundtrack tunes or whatever, that a lot of documentaries would have had thrown in.

You can’t afford it. It would cost the same as the film, honestly. For temp purposes, we tried some of the popular songs. It fought the dialogue so badly that we actually had to have it scored properly, to have a composer come in. But we wanted it to be of the period. I felt for her that the sound is a guitar. It can be insistent and sweet and shy at the same time. It has a great range. From fists in the air, to shy Angela. I thought it would really be a good sound for her personality and the tone of the film.

In terms of Vernon Reid, I just asked. And he said yes. I feel like he did a fantastic job. It was kind of inspired by the material and is engaged with the material. He took the ideas and directions that I gave him and made it his own. That theme song is far sweeter than I would have thought I’d like. I misread Vernon. He has a sensitive side and it came out in the music. He really engaged with the material intellectually and emotionally. I think it comes through in the music.

For more on the film, Lynch’s stylistic choices, Davis’s iconography and why Ronald Reagan and the FBI aren’t the villains, check out the second part of my interview with Shola Lynch here.

This is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.