Interview: Shola Lynch on Why Ronald Reagan and the FBI Aren’t the Villains of ‘Free Angela and All Political Prisoners’


This two-part interview was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14, 2012.

Yesterday, I posted the first part of my interview with Shola Lynch, director of Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. That was more of the name-drop interview, while this half of our conversation gets deeper into the documentary and her choices as a filmmaker.

Lynch (whose previous film, Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, has been shown on Documentary Channel) tells me about how and why she made a film about Angela Davis and how and why it was important not to depict the FBI and Ronald Reagan as total villains in the story.

She also coined a term for the style of her film, “historical verite,” which I rather like a lot and think I’d like to put into practice if more tightly told, in-the-moment sort of docs like this are made.

Here is the second part of our conversation, in full:

DOC Channel Blog: Why tell Angela’s story now, and why did she finally want to speak now?

Shola Lynch: She didn’t really want to speak. She’s been a reluctant participant. But I was pretty persistent. I use a technique called “polite persistence.” It’s an old Jedi mind trick. Anyway.

All jokes aside, she was known as an icon. It’s the afro. The afro silhouette is something that I wanted to look at , that image. What got me curious is who is the woman behind the icon. What were the choices she made — and what were their consequences, unintended and intended — to transition from a 26-year-old, European-trained philosophy professor into an international icon? How is that possible?

That story is not even believable. If I wrote it as a story, or if I wrote it as a narrative, people would be like, “That person doesn’t exist.” I was intrigued by that. I wanted to know the story. The real story. And I wanted her to participate in telling it.

Angela Davis Wanted Poster

Her iconography is a big part of the film, too. It’s funny when the FBI agent you interviewed talks about how the investigation and search for Angela was so dependent on her having that afro.

When you think about it logically, of course the first thing you would do to disguise yourself is not have an afro, if that’s how you’re known. It’s kinda funny. There are moment like that, they’re not comedic moments, but they’re funny, life’s ridiculous moments.
I presume that you’ve seen or at least know about The Black Power Mixtape. So it’s the time for Davis to be out in the open again, apparently.

Absolutely. She’s more comfortable doing what she did in Black Power Mixtape, in the sense that if you listen to her voiceover, it’s more about the politics and the history. She’s a teacher. It’s a very comfortable space for her to be in. She will do that almost anytime, anywhere, anyplace.

But I had the documentary rights to tell her life story. To me, that’s what she hasn’t done. That’s what she hasn’t felt comfortable doing. She’s shy, and she’s also private. I think also in some ways this whole period was a trauma for everybody involved. So many people died, friends and loved ones.

Also there was a sense of “we’re in a war.” She and her comrades — and many young people on the left, period — felt like the revolution was right around the corner. There’s a certain intensity in that. You’re not sure what tomorrow is, so you live completely for today.

What was your reason for choosing such direct storytellers, in terms of who you interviewed? It seems relatively tight, just fairly close to the story, compared to a film that might have had a lot of outside and retrospective historical comment. Or, say, Will Smith to appear on screen.

Oh, god. No. That’s not the kind of film I want. I wanted people who actually knew her and knew what happened and participated in it to tell me what their version of events were. We can all wax eloquent about Angela without knowing anything about her. I wasn’t interested in a distant view.

I also wanted to bring in a lot of the intensity of the period.I have this clumsy phrase for it called “historical verite.” It’s a film that took place 40 years ago but I want it to feel like you’re going through it with her. I tried to do the same thing with the Chisholm film. That way, it becomes something that lives with you in an emotional way. You can see and think about and feel the choices that are being made. And in that way, you grow. Whether you agree with her choices or not, it becomes an experience.

Angela Davis

I was particularly interested in the FBI agent. I don’t think he really seemed to have much of a sided slant in the story. He just tells what happened with the investigation and arrest, as much as he was there for. What was his involvement like as far as finding him and interviewing him?

That’s one of the things that I loved about him. He was actually very proud of the job that he did. With her case and with other cases. Part of it was the pride in his work. He was matter-of-fact about it. “This was my job. I was told to do this. This is what we had to do. And this is how we did it.”

In a way, he didn’t think she was so dangerous or so bad. But he really had, not a good time, but he enjoyed being good at his job. He’s the perfect FBI agent because of that. He had no political axe to grind. Because he is retired, he’s allowed to talk, if he chooses to, and he was very proud of being on this case. It was one of the highlights of his career.

If you had focused more on looking back, I could see someone else trying to get him to say something critical of Hoover’s bureau or what was going on at that time. Or defend it. The only part of the film that almost seems retrospective is the Nixon tapes. Which still isn’t, obviously, because the tape is from then. But it’s something we wouldn’t have heard at the time. We wouldn’t have gotten that perspective from him at that time.

No. But you’re right. I limited myself in a way to the things that happened then and the various perspectives. I felt like the government had a legitimate perspective. And the FBI, and the Nixon tape, and Ronald Reagan. I didn’t want to belittle that, and I didn’t want to make them into false bad guys. In the sense that they’re at the core of their actions, and they felt they were protecting the country. I wanted to respect that. I do respect that.

I don’t necessarily agree with how they went about it, but they were in a panic situation. They also felt like the revolution was right around the corner. And the kids were winning. They didn’t understand the rebelliousness of a whole generation of kids. They felt like !these young peopleI should act better. And they needed to be punished.

I think Reagan actually — I couldn’t find footage of it, but he really felt like those kids needed to be checked, and “I’m Daddy, and I’m going to do it.” We can’t put up with this, was his attitude. I can understand why, in a way. Try to put yourself in his shoes to be protecting the state and so on. But then I also understand the other side, as well. Angela’s point of view.

I feel like as an historian, as a journalist, as a documentary filmmaker, as a storyteller, the story is only better if you’re respectful to all sides. And equally investigate them and try to be as true to their points of view without overstating. They had a point of view, and in retrospect they seem a little. “wow.”

That’s the one thing I was shocked about. You had all these conspiracy theorists saying, “we’re being infiltrated on the left and there’s all this stuff going on and the government’s really coming down on us.” It’s proving to be true. It’s interesting.

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners Poster

At the time, nobody knew just how many files the FBI had on everyone.

Nobody knew it. They suspected it, but nobody knew it for sure. But it is true, and it is of that period, and it was happening. The FBI was doing that, and those are things I found in her FBI file. Angela had never accessed her FBI file. She was never interested in that. I would not have been able to get full access to the files without her notarized consent. If somebody is living, they will not send files to a third party.

So having access to those files, like the FBI agent, they state the record. The chronology of everything is there. It’s like the paper trail. It was phenomenal. I feel like there’s a whole film that can be done on the FBI files. If people want to look at paper all day.

Or on each file. This relates to Angela, actually, that somebody was able to focus a documentary mostly on the file on John Lennon, called The U.S. vs. John Lennon.

Oh right.

Can you tell me about some of your stylistic choices? There are some very conventional elements with the talking heads and archive material, but then other moments feel more like a narrative movie, such as with her apprehension. The FBI agent even points out that it seemed like a movie at the time.

Stylistically, I did think of it as a documentary movie. I kept calling it that to remind myself and other people that what we’re trying to do is build a very strong narrative. And we’re going to do it without narration, so it has to function as a movie. We can’t just leave people hanging.

As for the various styles, La Jetee was something that I had watched over and over again. The Thin Blue Line. One Day in September. The Fog of War, also, to a certain degree. There are films that are out there that use different kinds of filmmaking methods and collage them together in a way that works. That’s what I was trying to do. Also, I knew my budget was not a narrative budget.

Angela Davis 2

Right, and there are some recreations, but not with the incident, which is a big moment for the story. There you do something very fresh by quickly cutting together crime scene photos to almost make them seem animated.

In order to do the crime scene well, it has to be a real movie scene. So the photographs became. I feel so grateful that they existed. These two photojournalists heard the radio call on the police wire and ran over to the Marin County Civic Center and started taking photographs from two different vantage points. It was all captured. I thought that was too good to pass up. They’re real. I want people to know that this is a real story. Because there are parts of it that are not believable.But then there are spaces where there is absolutely no footage. Like Angela on the run. And of course I didn’t know I was going to find the FBI photographs, because they’re not in the file that I have. But they’re mentioned. I went back and kept talking to the FBI and got to the right person. You have to always find the right archivist within every organization, because there’s always somebody who’s good at finding something new.

I found a gentleman, and since I already had access to the file he was willing to do this extra search for me. And he said he found the photographs. Oh my goodness. You could not imagine that day. It’s like great detective work. You don’t do it alone, but you want to find certain things. You want them to be unearthed. Hopefully it happens within the time frame of your production. But it doesn’t always.

So then I had a sense of what she looked like on the run. I used that and what she said about being on the run in her book and all the other interviews and imagined what it was like for her. I created images, they’re moving images, but in a way — I use photographs as my artistic base point — again, I didn’t want to recreate the scene. I couldn’t. It wasn’t about the location. It wasn’t about the props. I wanted it very close, silhouetted.

And it’s not about what is said, either. No need for a dialogue scene.

Right. I wanted Angela’s real voice. I didn’t think you could have Angela in the film and then have somebody play Angela who would compete with the real Angela. I always knew I would use Angela’s real voice.

For more on the recreations and the actress who actually does play Angela in the film, as well as discussion of celebrity assistance and other aspects of making the film, check out the first 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.