Film and TV

Free Angela Davis Director Shola Lynch: “Our history is being held hostage by corporations”

Director Shola Lynch has been mining the rich terrain of black American history for a while now, notably in the award-winning 2004 documentary Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed, about the 1972 presidential campaign by the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American and the first woman to mount a serious, credible run for the office, and most recently with last year's Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners, her soulful, illuminating documentary about the activist icon's notorious 1971 trial on charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. (The DVD was just released this week.)

Where much official history (even that of radical movements) still places men at the locus of celebration and inquiry, Lynch's ongoing artistic/journalistic project is the reclamation of the contributions black women have made to struggles for freedom. In a recent conversation, she spoke about black female agency, struggles to get her films made, and why Harriet Tubman deserves so much better than the tasteless caricaturing she recently received via Russell Simmons's YouTube channel, All Def Digital.

Have you been able to follow any of the social media conversations sparked by #solidarityisforwhitewomen or #blackpowerisforblackmen? If so, what is your take on those hashtag conversations, the fact that they're still even necessary in the wake of the work and activism of people like Ms. Chisolm, Ms. Davis, and countless others?

Actually, I've been more in tune with the recent Russell Simmons controversy over the parody Harriet Tubman "sex tape." I guess that is the only way he could imagine Ms. Tubman being empowered to be an antislavery freedom-fighter--that sex, in the end, is a woman's best and only weapon. The good news is that he's now talking about putting funds into a Harriet Tubman movie--and I've been developing one. How about it, @UncleRUSH?

But to answer your question more directly, I think these types of discussions will always be necessary as long as we are divorced from the powerful stories in our past. Each generation tends to think they have a leg up on the previous one. In some ways that's true, with technological changes especially. In other ways, it is just not. We have so much to learn from reclaiming our history through the lens of our agency. Things have changed, but as the lessons are lost, we have to re-remember them. I definitely feel that way about both Chisholm and Davis. I was drawn to those stories because they erase some of the perceived invisibility of my group: black women. What I admire about both of them is that their lack of agency by their race and gender station didn't even occur to them--well, at least not enough to stop them.

Given the research you did for both your films, I'm wondering what you might have learned about organizing, strategic vision, coalition-building, and weathering political and legal setbacks that can be applied to activism now in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, Stand Your Ground Laws, stop-and-frisk policies, statistics that show that every 28 hours a black person is murdered by a policeman or vigilante ...

That you have to be strategic and meet people where they are in their mindset. The tragedy of the Zimmerman verdict is that it was more of an indictment of Trayvon Martin. Martin was on trial, too. The prosecution did not address that well for the jury; in other words, [they] did not meet the jury where its mindset was regarding race and class as opposed to where it should have been. It is like me making a film that confuses people and then blaming racism or the audience for its confusion, when in fact I would be responsible for not doing my job well.

How do  you, as a filmmaker whose content is about politics and political figures, and whose films are therefore political, define your work and yourself in relationship to the kind of work you do? I ask because I realize that I opened the interview with questions that are somewhat presumptuous--that because your films thus far have strong political content and social commentary and are centered on iconic black women activists/politicians, that you could be a political analyst in a larger sense, when that may have nothing to do with how you see yourself.

I'm an armchair commentator, like any good New Yorker/Harlemite, but only when I know the facts. With my films, my job is to unearth as much of the truth as I can. I like facts. I like investigating. Which brings up one of my pet peeves about Free Angela: I've had reporters assume--as in, not ask me--or accuse me of making some kind of Angela Davis puff piece. Come on. While I realize that it's inconvenient to be a black woman who makes a film about a black woman--who turns out in the end to be innocent--immediately I become suspect, as though I can't be objective. Come on, people!

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Hardy, Ernest