Director Shola Lynch talks Free Angela & All Political Prisoners
Director Shola Lynch talks Free Angela & All Political Prisoners
By Wilson Morales
September 12, 2012
Currently playing at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival is “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners ,” the extraordinary documentary by Shola Lynch on 60s and ’70s political revolutionary Angela Davis and her 1972 conspiracy-kidnapping-murder trial. Throughout the film, we get commentaries from Davis, her family members, and the government officials involved with the case.
Not only is the film playing among other films, but it was presented by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith as part of the festival’s Gala Presentations. The Smiths, along with rapper/businessman Jay-Z have also come onboard as executive producers.
Since making her directorial debut with the acclaimed 2004 documentary “Chisholm ’72 – Unbought & Unbossed,” Lynch has worked on other documentaries such as the Peabody Award-winning “Frank Lloyd Wright” and the Emmy Award winning HBO Sports documentary “Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team.”
Blackfilm.com recently spoke with Lynch as she talked about this long-in-development project finally coming to fruition, working with Angela Davis and others in getting the story told, and having celebrities support her to get the film attention and hopefully distribution.
Where did the idea to cover this aspect of Angela’s life come from?
Shola Lynch: It came from when I looked into it. I really didn’t know the story. How does a 26 year-old philosophy professor go and what are the choices that she made that made her a political icon. She wasn’t trying to be a political icon, but I was interested in that journey. How did that happen?
How long did it take to get Angela’s blessing?
SL: When I decided to do this, it took a while to talk her into this. To be honest, I loved the challenge of it. Once she said yes, then I had to do it. What worked in get her approval was that I had a film documentary made (about Shirley Chisholm) so I could show that to her. Once I encouraged her to take a look at it, that’s what made the difference. I told her I wasn’t going to do a biography. People are worried if it’s going to be any good and not boring, and the thing about your life is that if it doesn’t have any narrative arc, it’s really hard to do. I wanted this for the big screen. I felt that this is a very dramatic story and there’s an audience there for it. She has an audience. It became a political crime drama. It centered on choices that led to a crime. They exhibited her under pressure. We’re all truly who we are under pressure.
Was having Angela the catalyst to getting everyone from her family to politicians on camera?
SL: Yes. In terms of her lawyer and her family. They would never have done it without her. I also felt that it can’t be a one sided story. That’s boring and where’s the tension in that? There’s another side to this story. It was challenging getting interviews from the government side. A lot of people are dead or they are not interested in talking. I commend her for letting me make a story of her life. We were able to talk to one of the main FBI agents on her case and we found some great footage. We also found a journalist from that period and they didn’t have an axe to grind on one side or the other; and that was important.
What was most challenging in putting this film together? Was it the editing process, gathering materials, or just the interviews?
SL: I would say that in every aspect there were challenges. The most difficult part was figuring out the logic of the story. How do you explain to somebody who doesn’t anything about the 60s and 70s the intenseness and passion from the Black Panthers and from the left, in terms of the idea that the revolution is coming from the corner. If you say that without setting them up properly, one would chuckle at it, but it was very real. It was very real for the government, Ronald Reagan, President Nixon, and the FBI. I had to constructively tell this story, moving from point A to point B without losing them. Hopefully, we’ve done it successfully.
How long have you been working on this?
SL: Seven years. My husband (Vince Morgan) has never known me not working on this. My kids know Angela Davis’ name. They wondered if she was their friend and could they meet her one day.
You mentioned the project took seven years to complete. Was it because of funding?
SL: Absolutely. I would say that in this instance it helped. I don’t think this film could have been made faster than four or five years. It took me two years to actually get the FBI files. There are certain things that are a slow process. Her FBI files had never been access before. She has never access them. I needed to get a waver from her since she’s living to access them. This is completely new material. This is not a corporate sponsored documentary. The funding was incredibly challenging. Because the themes are militancy, politics, power, crime, and communism, funders were very weary. That was one of the aspects, so I am incredibly grateful to the people who stepped up and showed their support. In particular, the Ford Foundation, and BET. They came in and bought the television rights. Aretha Jones from BET called me and I told them it’s for the big screen first and they got it and asked me how much more I needed.
Instead of waiting for Sundance, the film is premiering at Toronto and part of its Gala presentations. How did that come about?
SL: It’s called being a good film and Angela Davis has a following. The top people of the festival saw the film and really liked it. The artistic director Cameron Bailey liked it and got behind it. Their question for me was that they wanted it part of their Gala but they also wanted star power. They wanted to know if Angela would show up. I asked her and she said yes. Toward to the end of completing the film, we needed more money to license the material so we can do all the things we wanted to do. I had a last minute funding come in. I called it “The Hail Mary” email. I sent it to a handful of people and one of my friends said she could help with this and asked if she could send the email to a couple of people including Jada Pinkett Smith. It was about four weeks later and I didn’t think it was going to happen, but when she watched it, she texted Sidra Smith, who was the producer that set it up, and said, “Oh my gosh! I want to meet Shola!” We met several days later and two weeks after that, she wired money into my account. That just doesn’t happen. She showed it to her husband (Will Smith), she showed it to the company (Overbrook Entertainment) and while the press has mentioned Will Smith and Jay-Z, it’s Jada who deserves most of the credit. She made that happen.
Will the film be in theaters this year?
SL: We are looking for a theatrical distributor in the US. The question I’m asked the most is “Who’s the audience for this?” I’m liked, “What?” There is an audience for this film. We’re trying to set that up and the ball rolling. When Angela goes to speak at academic circuits, hundreds of people show up. Most people know of her afro and as a name in history, and they want to know if the film is any good and that will draw people.
You’ve worked on other projects, but what did you take away from doing this film?
SL: This project raised my game in every possible way. It raised my game as a producer. It raised my game as a storyteller and it raised my game as a filmmaker overall. This was the first time I got to create from scratch my images, and I absolutely loved it. My dream is make a documentary like this and then produce and direct the narrative version. There is so much power in the images we create. They give us the memories. I learned that I like what I do.
When you weren’t working on the film within those seven years, what kept you grounded?
SL: Well, when it’s seven years, it’s not seven years full time. I was working other jobs while I was fundraising. You can’t do that when you’re in production. In this time period, I got married, had two kids, and worked for higher projects like television docs and docs for non-projects. I also got a Master’s degree in journalism from Columbia. It’s all about prioritizing you time, but I have to say that working with Angela in the last year and a half is when all the pieces came together. It was the biggest challenge that I’ve had and for a long time, I wasn’t sure if it would come together in a way that would satisfy me. It was a huge relief when it did.
After doing pieces on Shirley Chisholm and now Angela Davis, who’s next to get the Shola Lynch treatment?
SL: I have some ideas up my sleeve. I have to figure out what’s the business model that will work in this economy. In terms of independent films, I would like to do Harriet Tubman as an action movie. I also want to do the doc, which shouldn’t be expensive in terms of the research to do the feature. When you think about it, she was an action heroine. She could cloak herself in invisibility and bring people from slavery into freedom. As people of color and as women, we have to tell our stories and we have to in ways that would excite us.