Activist Angela Davis looks back as doc tells her story

American activist Angela Davis says she found it exciting and sad to relive the events of 40 years ago with the new documentary Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners.
Activist Angela Davis looks back at her uncomfortable stint in the spotlight with the release of documentary Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners. (TIFF)

American activist Angela Davis says she found it exciting and sad to relive the events of 40 years ago as she saw the new documentary Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners for the first time at a public screening in Toronto.

In the 1970s, the young philosophy professor was considered an icon of black liberation for speaking out in defence of political prisoners and found her name on the FBI's most-wanted list after a judge was kidnapped and guns used in a bloody shootout were registered in her name.

In an interview on CBC's Q cultural affairs show, Davis talks about director Shona Lynch’s documentary, which uses archival footage and interviews with people involved to tell the story.

"Watching the events portrayed in the film, it does seem like another era, but at the same time, I feel very close to what happened at that time and I continue to do the work that I was doing at the time I was arrested," Davis told Q host Jian Ghomeshi.

She also learned things she didn't know, such as how the FBI caught up with her after she went into hiding.

"I knew my side of the story, but I did not know theirs," she said.

Lynch interviewed one of the agents involved in Davis's high-profile case and he explained the hunt, step by step.

An open member of the Communist Party and an associate of the Black Panthers, Davis said she now realizes that she was "naïve" to think that a black woman could speak openly about civil rights in that era. She lost her teaching job at the University of California over her political views.

"Once it happened, I saw it as an opportunity to shed light on other issues and especially political prisoners, specifically the case of ... the Soledad brothers [black men charged in the murder of a guard at the Soledad Prison]."

She discusses the difficulties of life on the run and the 16 months she spent in prison in solitary confinement before a jury acquitted her of all charges related to a botched kidnapping.

By the time of her acquittal, she was an international cause célèbre. Davis said she never sought the spotlight and thinks of herself more of a teacher than a leader.

Free Angela & All Political Prisoners had its premiere earlier this week and screens again on Saturday at TIFF.