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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Free Angela And All Political Prisoners

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Born in Birmingham, Alabama and educated at the Frankfurt School, Angela Davis was uniquely positioned at the heady 1960s crossroads of political activism and academic theory. Shola Lynch’s engaging biography begins at the flash point, with Davis’ arrest in August of 1970 in connection with a courtroom hostage takeover that left six people dead and had Richard Nixon denouncing her as a “dangerous terrorist.” But in spite of its attention-grabbing opening and provocative title, Free Angela And All Political Prisoners is less a work of agitprop than straightforward history, intriguing but never unsettling.

Lynch, who profiled black presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm in 2004’s Unbought And Unbossed, has slicked up her game considerably in the intervening years, deftly interweaving archival footage and new interviews. (Having Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith on board as executive producers doubtless bought her plenty of time in the edit room.) There’s less vintage footage of Davis addressing crowds than one might like, but in the present day, Davis remains a beguiling and charismatic speaker, even if the temperature of her rhetoric has cooled significantly.

A member of the Communist Party who allied herself with the Black Panthers, Davis was also a fiercely articulate intellectual specializing in German philosophy—in other words, conservative America’s worst nightmare. So when it turned out that the guns used in a courtroom standoff belonged to her, the FBI seized the opportunity to bring her in. First, however, she went underground, which turned her from a figure of controversy into a nascent legend. John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote a song about her, as did the Rolling Stones; her Afro-ed silhouette became as iconic as Che’s beret.

Free Angela isn’t especially aggressive in querying Davis’ myth, or the excesses of 1960s rhetoric, which oddly dilutes some of its subjects’ stances: Sure, self-defense was only one point in the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program, but massing on courthouse steps with assault rifles slung over their shoulders was a calculated bid for attention—if the media paid less attention to the Panthers’ free breakfasts, it wasn’t entirely the media’s fault. But considering how often the history of the 1960s is dominated by tie-dye nostalgia, Free Angela is a welcome corrective.