Angela Davis Interview For ‘Free Angela & All Political Prisoners’
‘Free Angela & All Political Prisoners’ is a feature-length documentary about Angela Davis and the high stakes crime, political movement, and trial that catapults the 26 year-old newly appointed philosophy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles into a seventies revolutionary political icon. Nearly forty years later, and for the first time, Angela Davis speaks frankly about the actions that branded her as a terrorist and simultaneously spurred a worldwide political movement for her freedom. Directed by Shola Lynch, expect a release date for ‘Free Angela & All Political Prisoners’ soon.
You wrote your Autobiography many years ago, but what was your reaction when Shola Lynch came to you to pitch the film? Maybe she’s not the first person who’s tried to do this before?
Angela Davis: Well, I must admit I was somewhat reluctant. I’ve always been a reluctant public person, so my first impression was, “Do I really want to do this?” But then I thought about the potential of a documentary that would focus very specifically on the trial and on the campaign that developed around my case. And I thought it might be important to speak to young people in the 21st century about movements that were powerful and were victorious. 40 years ago no one could have imagined that despite the fact that I was innocent, I would be able to stand up to the power of the State – particularly incarnated by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But that campaign that developed all over the world, literally on every continent, it made it possible for us to experience that victory. And so I thought it might be important for young people today to get a sense of what it meant to feel collectively powerful and capable of changing the world. And we need a lot of that today.
A still photo can have so much power, if you think about Che Guevara wearing his beret, or John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute at the Mexico Olympics, or whether it’s yourself as a silhouette on the poster for this documentary. After all these years this image can be on a poster and even people who know nothing about your true story, but they’re curious about it and want to see the film, will have a visceral reaction to this image. What is your personal relationship with an image like that, how do you process that now at this point in your life? An image that represents a part of your life that you’re now telling?
Angela Davis: Because I’m putatively the subject of the image, I have a more complicated relationship to it. It took me quite a long time to feel comfortable in my relationship with that image, because I have always insisted that it’s really not me. It’s an image that has been produced and that circulates in a certain way. But I’m not all that is ascribed to that image. And then I’ve told this story quite a number of times, I encountered a very young woman, High School age, a few years ago, and she was wearing a T-shirt with my image on it. I used to really feel embarrassed and shy away (laughs) – people would even give me T-shirts, I would be like, “Why are you giving it to me? I‘m never going to wear this.” (Laughs). So this young woman knew very little about the history. But I asked her why she was wearing the shirt, and she said, “Because it makes me feel empowered, because it makes me feel as if I can do anything I want to do.“ And so at that point, I reconciled myself to the work that the image performs. And at the same time I have to recognise that it is not me, it is a constructed and a created image that does have an enormous amount of power. The image embodies a collective power, and I think people relate to it precisely because of that.
For me, there seems to be a real resurgence at present with youth involvement in social activism….
Angela Davis: I think each generation finds its own way. And I think that 40 years later after the events on which this is based, we are experiencing a resurgence of activism. I am totally impressed by young people, and especially by the ability to think in complicated ways. And so a question like, “What is the most important struggle?” Might have been repeatedly asked 40 years ago and we might have taken it seriously, but I think today many young activists would say that, “It’s not so much what’s the most important struggle, the question is how do we find the connections that bring all of these struggles together? And how can we choose our own commitment of activism, based on our own passions for particular issues?” But at the same time they recognise there is a intersectionality, to use a feminist term, that there is an interconnection among all of the struggles for social justice. Whether it is war, racism, challenging the pollution of the environment, animal rights, homophobia, a whole range of issues – even food of course is emerging as an extremely important focus of radical politics. And I think we’ll always be discovering new ways of addressing our desires and aspirations for the future.
There are recreated scenes in the film helping visualize parts of the narrative for which no archival footage exists, and in those sequences you are played by your niece Eisa Davis. I understand Eisa’s full name is Angela Eisa Davis, named after you, by your younger sister?
Angela Davis: Yes. My sister was pregnant throughout several months of the ordeal and she visited me in my cell on the day she went into labour. So she wanted to name Eisa after me, she had devoted so much of her life travelling around the world and so forth – and because we were very close! And she wanted to name Eisa, Angela Libre, and I said, “No, no, no, no, no,” (laughs). I said, “You cannot saddle that child with such a burden for the rest of her life.” So her name became Angela Eisa. Thankfully (laughs).
How did you find the experience of watching this film?
Angela Davis: Watching it I had a range of emotions. First of all I was very impressed, second I was very sad when I saw certain images that brought back very bad memories. I was sad to see people who had been very active in the campaign, so vibrant on the screen but that are no longer with us today. And then, as I told Shola, I learned things about the case that I never knew. So 40 years later I discovered how the FBI actually caught me (laughs). She interviewed a FBI agent, the FBI never came to me to tell me how they tracked me down (laughs).
When you look back at COINTELPRO and the repression that the counter culture was subjected to back then, do you think it’s legitimate to see it in the same vein as the Communist witch-hunt of the McCarthy era?
Angela Davis: Well, I think, certainly during each era the repression builds on previous modes of repression. Certainly COINTELPRO drew from the McCarthy era. As a matter of fact, during the era of COINTELPRO, there was still a great deal of anti-Communism. Not only in the FBI, but in the discourses that circulated in general. As a matter of fact, my story, the story that gets depicted in the film, that story started when I was fired from my position as a result of being a member of the Communist party. And that came as a shock to me, it never occurred to me that I would be fired for being a Communist – after all I had been invited to teach Marxism (laughs). So it think that the COINTELPRO relied on anti-Communism. The construction of the “terrorist” also relies on strategies that were developed in connection with the anti-Communist witch-hunt and COINTELPRO. I always say that institutions have very long memories, they have memories that are much longer than individual memories.
You’ve been a committed activist and Communist almost all of your life, and you’re still working on a great number issues. Do you still see anti-Communism in society and do you feel that this movie will have opposition to that if so?
Angela Davis: Yes (laughs). I do think that it is important to point out that the anti-Communism of the past is not the same anti-Communism we experience in the present. Young people are a lot more open, and especially given the development of the “Occupy” movement in the last year, there’s been an ability to be critical of capitalism, there’s a public discourse on capitalism, anti-capitalism, that has not been around since the 1920s and the 1930s when the Communist party was responsible in the US for developing such things as Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and so forth.
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