I wandered down to Watershed in the May rain and gloom to see Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, and came out with far more than I bargained for.
The screening started with the brilliant short film Hairpiece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People, by Ayoka Chenzira. Through animations and painfully insightful commentary, Chenzira brings to life what it’s like to be an African American woman living in a society that values hair that ‘blows in the wind’. Tracing the history of hair products and techniques used on black hair, this exuberant satire was a perfect complement and introduction to the Angela Davis documentary, where the image of Angela’s afro becomes a theme of steadfast, solid defiance against systematic racist and sexist oppression.
“This is change. This is earthshaking, I want to be there” was Angela’s conviction behind returning to America from Berlin in the late 60’s. Amidst a wave of police brutality against black people and continued, perpetual state racism, a new surge of resistance was happening with the Black Panthers and others.
With just one line from an activist, that the police were “there to contain us, to brutalise us, to murder us”, it becomes clear that this documentary is not just recuperation of history or of one woman’s story, but an essential bearing to witness to the continued truth of that statement. Davis herself notes how black people are never allowed to be radical, only ‘militant’ and again these words span the decades, to the present situation regarding the characterisation of black protestors in America today.
Angela was never a member of the Black Panthers. She took issue with what she saw as their sexist approach to black power, where women took a back seat and kneeled at the feet of the men. This force of insight into the interconnected issues of racism and sexism was repeated numerous times throughout the film, most significantly when she addressed the court in her trial. With the threat of life imprisonment looming, and the characterisation of the trial in terms of deep-seated racism, Angela brazenly told the court that the prosecution’s argument was sexist and immediately fractured the rigid polarisation of black vs white.
The focus of the film is Angela’s 1971 trial for conspiracy, kidnapping and murder, after a plan by Jonathan Jackson to interrupt a Marin County trial ended in 4 people being killed and it was discovered that the guns used had been purchased by Angela. Although nowhere near the crime scene, she was immediately put on the FBI’s most wanted list and went on the run.
By splicing archival footage, photos, and newspaper reports with present day interviews and commentary from Angela Davis, her attorneys and supporters, even if you already know the outcome of the trial, you are made the live through the tension, fear and hope. Angela’s wisdom and wit drench the proceedings and serve to humanise her; when she initially faced three charges that each carried the death penalty, before it was outlawed in California, she says she realised “this wasn’t about me. I couldn’t be killed three times!” On a more serious note she perceives that indeed it wasn’t about her, but the “construction of an imaginary enemy” which she embodied.
When the film ended, the audience applauded the screen. There was a shared energy that came from witnessing this incredibly intelligent and powerful woman, along with her thousands of supporters, standing up and fighting against state injustices. Personally I was buoyed by seeing how the efforts of an individual can build and generate larger collective movements and walked away motivated to take this into my own life. It was still raining outside but the gloom had lifted.