“Free Angela and All Political Prisoners,” Shola Lynch’s admiring but ultimately frustrating portrait of activist Angela Davis, threads viewers through one of the more conflicted periods in U.S. history, when anti-Vietnam War fervor, African American militancy, police brutality and establishment backlash combusted with elemental force. At the center of the explosion was Davis, who, as a young philosophy instructor at UCLA, came to embody everything that white, conservative and patriarchal America feared from what looked like the coming revolution.
As Davis explains in “Free Angela,” she was an unlikely vanguard. Having grown up in a middle-class black household in Jim Crow-era Birmingham, Ala., Davis went to high school in New York before attending Brandeis University, eventually studying philosophy in Germany just as the civil rights movement was getting underway.
Returning to the States to experience the seismic changes of the 1960s firsthand, Davis attempted to join the Black Panthers before being turned off by their “nationalism and male supremacy.” She eventually joined a Los Angeles chapter of the Communist Party, an affiliation that led the UCLA board of regents — and California’s governor at the time, Ronald Reagan — to seek her removal from the faculty. Receiving daily hate mail and death threats, Davis bought several guns for self-defense, a not-unreasonable response to a climate that seemed to be on a continual warlike footing.
Lynch does a terrific job of mining the visual record to evoke the rising paranoia and violence of the era, intercutting stock footage, present-day recollections and seamless re-creations (filmed by the great Bradford Young, a Howard University graduate) to evoke an immediate sense of time and place. Most of “Free Angela” centers on the 1970 kidnapping and killing of a Marin County Superior Court judge, during which two of Davis’s guns were used. After going underground, Davis was put on the FBI’s most-wanted list, became an international cause celebre and was eventually apprehended, jailed and tried — events that are recounted with almost beat-by-beat detail by her friends, relatives and impressively astute attorneys.
It’s a lively, involving story that entails its share of surprises even if you know the ending. But Lynch is too content to let Davis control the narrative, never asking her to explain how her firearms came to be used in the kidnapping, whether or how her views have evolved regarding violence and communism, and how she has spent the past 40 years. Still, “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners” offers a valuable glimpse of our own history — not to mention an eerily relevant reminder of how laws and rhetoric surrounding gun control have been shaped by racial politics. “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” may seem to take place in a distant past, but it resonates with improbable timeliness.
Unrated. At AMC Hoffman Center 22 and AMC Magic Johnson Capital Center 12. Contains brief profanity and disturbing images. 101 minutes.