Filmgoers can check out a big-name drama this week about a former ’60s political activist going underground (Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep); coincidentally, they’ll also have an opportunity to experience a vérité portrait of the real deal. A controversial professor at UCLA and one of the decade’s most eloquent advocates for civil rights by every means necessary, Angela Davis cut an imposing, impressive figure in the era’s far-left circles. She was also a staunch supporter of the Soledad Brothers, a trio of African-American inmates who were accused of killing a white prison guard. Later, an attempt to free the threesome resulted in the deaths of several innocents; when it was discovered that Davis purchased the guns used in the botched escape, she then became Public Enemy No. 1.
Though Shola Lynch’s documentary briefly goes into Davis’s background, it focuses mainly on her life as a fugitive and a ward of the state. (The title comes from the name of the organization dedicated to helping her while incarcerated.) All the proper clips are used, all the right talking-heads are trotted out—including compelling accounts from the subject herself. You could probably even forgive some of the cheesier choices Lynch makes (silhouette re-creations of a “conjugal visit”?) were it nor for the sense that something major is missing here. Despite everyone from Jean Genet to the Fresno farmer who put up her bail praising her work, Davis mostly comes off like a one-dimensional martyr: someone who was bounced around by the age of global revolution instead of being a key advocate for it. Consider this a gateway drug: Anyone interested in this chapter of her story and our nation’s history should see it. Then they should seek out the bigger, deeper picture.
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