By Dwight Hobbes
It is sad to see how complacent we Black people have grown since the 1960s. The bourgeoisie blithely transitioned from a populace who once vowed “We Will Overcome” to a generation whose abiding principle now is “I have overcome.” You’d scarcely believe there was a time when Black America was determined to revolt against entrenched, institutionalized racism by, as Malcolm X said, any means necessary.
This country’s rulers realized back then that the bill had come due. Too many African Americans were longer shuffling along, head bowed, yassuhing and no ma’aming. Too many had their shoulders squared, braced to put their feet in the nation’s behind. They simply weren’t going for it anymore.
Even Martin Luther King had finally had enough and solidly spoke out against the war in Vietnam (which, it’s believably said, is what got him killed). In 1968, in response to King’s murder, all hell literally broke loose to the tune of riots from sea practically to shining sea in 125 cities, including New York, D.C. and Chicago, this following the Watts Rebellion of 1965 in Los Angeles and intermittent urban rioting in the years between.
J. Edgar Hoover placed every highly visible Black man and woman in America in the FBI’s crosshairs with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense at the top of his hit list. This is where Angela Davis, who otherwise probably would’ve been a minor though noteworthy figure, enters history. She was an activist and assistant UCLA professor of philosophy who, like a lot of other folk, raised all kinds of hell criticizing the government.
When two guns she purchased were found in the possession of the gunman in a police shootout (which the police started), instead of slapping her with a sensibly related offense, the district attorney, likely owing to her notoriety as a Panthers supporter, threw the book at her on a technicality, charging aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder.
Davis, understandably, reasoning she’d never get a fair trial, fled, rushing into the annals of lasting fame as an international icon. The longer she stayed on the run, the greater her profile rose until she made the mistake of leaving photographs of her disguise in the cushions of a couch.
The FBI and police, no longer hunting someone wearing a huge, fluffy Afro, knew exactly what to look for, and found her. The ensuing media storm dwarfed even her already high profile. Everybody on the political left wanted the woman set free. Everyone on the right, most vocally then-California Governor Ronald Regan and President Richard Nixon, wanted Angela Davis tarred, feathered and hung by her heels from the rafters.
The ultimate irony: She was acquitted by an all-White jury in ritzy, conservative San Jose. There may be hope for this country yet.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (Lionsgate-DVD) fascinatingly details these facts and a great deal more, giving an invaluable perspective on one of American history’s most important individuals, one of its most venerated African Americans and, to this day, a galvanizing figure for Black women in specific and women in general. More than getting the intricate facts right in a complex study, which would’ve been enough, screenwriter-director-producer Sholah Lynch delivers a rich, warmly touching portrait of Davis in the context of cold-blooded social circumstance.
It’s almost two hours long, yet so engrossing it goes by before you know it, wrapping up in an exhilarating climax after which you’ve been so wholly on edge (despite knowing how it ends) you have to catch your breath.
This is a brilliant documentary profiling a vastly worthy subject. If you recall the ’60s, it will take you back to a time when Black Americans refused to no longer be taken seriously. If you’re too young, it’s an invaluable look at where we came from that you’d do well to watch with somebody who was there.
Executive producers are Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s Overlook Entertainment, and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, which makes it — top to bottom — of the people, by the people and for the people.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.
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