If you haven’t yet checked out “Free Angela!” in AMC theaters nationwide, you should run, not walk, to the box office and by a ticket. In the riveting almost two-hour documentary, Director Shola Lynch takes you on a journey through the life and chaotic pursuit of Angela Davis in the trial that captivated the world. Lynch’s careful narrative choices reveal Angela as a perfectly flawed and complex character–presenting a story that peels through the layers of drama: guns, murder, just and love, to reveal a soft and perhaps surprising portrait of Angela Davis–reserved, healed and persistent in her commitment to being and political advocate.
In our exclusive interview with Shola Lynch, she discussed the challenges, triumphs and rewards involved in her journey to bring “Free Angela!” to theaters nationwide.
HB: How did you begin working on this project?
Shola Lynch: So many people know her face, know her image and then when I investigated the story, I [learned] I didn’t really know the details of the story. I knew she was an important historical figure; I probably thought she was a black panther, though she’s not technically, although she was sympathetic to, and she is a powerful and strong and political woman–but, I couldn’t tell you why I knew that. When I dug some and realized it’s a political crime drama with a love story in the middle of it, I realized, I had to make this story, I had to make this movie.
HB: I really felt like you’ve made this in a moment when I think that we really need it–I think for all of the years that this story hasn’t been told in this way, it’s so important the way that you have and that you’ve told it right now.
SL: I appreciate you recognizing that and saying it, because it does, it does feel sometime like thankless work. People will say, why do such a small story? Why make a story about a woman. Why only do a story about women of color? One hip-hop person who is not affiliated with the film at this time said, I’d help you fund this documentary, really to make the movie–the narrative scripted movie, but you have to be clear on who the main male characters are because people won’t go see a movie about a woman. And I’m like, ‘oh my god!’ So there’s a lot of push back, and we don’t support our own storytelling.
HB: Everyone thinks they know about Angela Davis, but so few people really do know the story. Why is that?
SL: I think that’s always the case with historical characters–except woman, and people of color–are particularly flattened in a way that I don’t really appreciate. So she’s remembered as dangerous and as angry, and she was neither of those really. But she was forceful and unapologetic for her politics. and she didn’t play a victim role at any part of the story or at party of her life.
I had never really heard much about the love story part–
SL: Yeah, because she doesn’t like to talk about it!
HB: Clearly–you can see that in her face. Did you get a sense about how she felt about it then and how she feels now, does she have lingering hurts?
SL: It was interesting, to be honest I remember feeling after the interview, disappointed, I felt like I wanted her to reveal more, or [be] somebody who wears all their emotions on their sleeve. And what I realize is, that is not who she is; she is never going to be that. We had to return to the interview and watch for what she did reveal, and not for what we wanted. And then we realized just how much she gave us. It’s in her body, it’s in what she says and what she doesn’t say. And so what we did is–we allowed her to be herself, because when you edit someone, you can edit them for what you want to hear, instead of for they’re trying to tell you–but, it was challenging!
HB: In the film, Angela Davis presents so interestingly on camera. She’s so placid and there’s a softness in her face that you wouldn’t expect, did you feel that from her?
SL: I expected her to be an angrier person. I expected her to have harder edges. And then I realized that she’s actually one of the people that comes out of this period, survived it and had a productive life. For so many people, they were completely traumatized, they didn’t have anything else to offer. But she is this person with a very long view of change and justice, and it’s part of how she lives her life. So even in the midst of all this, she never stopped living her life, she never stopped finding a way to laugh a little–I mean, I’m surprised at how much humor there is in this story despite the heaviness of it. There are moments still when I watch it and laugh out loud. And it’s part of their personalities–they knew it was heavy, they knew it was important, but they weren’t going to approach it in such an overbearing way that it sucks all the life out of it.
HB: How do you hope you girls and women will receive and are impacted by this?
SL: If I have an agenda, it really is to tell these stories in ways to make the main characters, these women, real, and human, and relatable. And what I mean by that is–I’m not interested in you liking her, or agreeing with her choices–but if you see her as a full human being, kind of in a philosophical way, like here’s this person being presented with choices, and has to act in a particular way, and here are the consequences–if you can see that, then you can make the takeaways [and] she becomes a real person that is a part of your historical legacy as a woman who impacts history and culture.