It has been over 40 years since political activist and scholar Angela Davis landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, but her story of perseverance and courage in the fight for civil rights is timeless. The upcoming documentary, “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners,” chronicles Davis’s lifework and her journey to becoming a revolutionary icon. Jada Pinkett Smith, who produced the documentary along with Will Smith, Jay Z and others, spoke with the Daily Californian about the lessons of the film and the legacy of Angela Davis.
Daily Californian: There are quite a few producers involved, including you, your husband, and Jay-Z. What is it about this film and this story that made you and so many others want to get involved?
Jada Pinkett Smith: I had my husband and Jay-Z get involved with this film because I thought it was important that it be something that they support. As soon as they saw this film, they were in complete agreement.
These are the kinds of projects that we like to link up on. It’s kind of our way of paying it forward to other prominent figures from our communities. This kind of falls into the category of one of the reason why all three of us got involved in this business in the first place. We do other things, but we also want to make projects like this important in addition to our legacy.
DC: Why do you think now, at a time when many young people may have never heard of Angela Davis, is the time to tell her story?
JPS: I think it’s a very good time to tell the story because it’s an important piece of American history that unfortunately many of you don’t know, but it’s part of the building blocks of how we got the America we have today. Watching the film, you’ll see the radical thinking that went behind the ideals of freedom and justice for all. Angela Davis, through this particularly controversial trial, became a figure not only for our nation but for the world. The world rallied behind her because of what she represented in regards to justice and freedom. She used her voice for the voiceless, and the world was using its voice to empower her during very trying times. I think, in watching this, young people will see an America that was, an America that transformed in order for us to have an America that now has an African American president, which seems of the norm. But in 1971, which wasn’t very long ago, it seemed like that would be something which would be impossible. For me, it illuminated how far we’ve come, and I think people watching this will be proud of what America has become today.
DC: Angela Davis was active 40 years ago, but do you think the issues of structural violence, which she protested, are still prevalent?
JPS: It’s still prevalent, for sure. We’ve made a lot of strides, but there’s still much to do in all those areas. But we have made strides and I think it’s important that we recognize that without becoming too complacent.
I definitely think that another reason it’s important for people to see this movie is to recognize how complacent we have become. When you think about what we were focusing on socially, culturally during that time and what we’re focusing on socially now, it’s night and day. I think that there needs to be a resurgence; there needs to be something reignited in the consciousness of young people and in the consciousness of America because there’s still much change, and I feel like we’re being put to sleep by some nonsense.
Hopefully this movie will inspire people to reignite that feeling, to continue to bring the change that we still need today.
DC: Here in Berkeley, where there is such a deep history of political activism, I think this story will be particularly resonant. When people see this movie do you think it will inspire a revival of activism?
JPS: I do. I really do hope that it will inspire a revival of activism and the idea of using one’s voice and one’s power for oneself first, and then extending that power to one’s surrounding communities for whatever one might think is needed. But we’ve got to wake up. I think we’ve becoming so afraid to speak on the things that we truly believe in and to actually do something about it.
I just hope that people will see the difference that Angela Davis was able to make. And yes, it was a painful struggle, but she made a lot of change. Just looking at that particular era and seeing what people were actually talking about and what people were actually doing. I hope that people start to recognize that we’re not doing enough right now. We are just not doing enough. We’re paying attention to things that really aren’t going to help move us forward in any way. I think what we’re focusing on is putting us to sleep, actually.
DC: You mentioned paying it forward and how this film was a way for you to do that. Can you elaborate on that?
JPS: Paying it forward on several levels. I have a personal affinity for Angela Davis because of what she represents as a woman and what she represents as an African American woman. Oftentimes, powerful women do not get recognized in the way that they should. Because Angela Davis has existed, it has paved the way for a lot of other powerful women my age to exist as well. One of the reasons that I felt it was extremely important that the men, powerful men, be involved in this as well was to show that powerful men are not afraid to support powerful women. It’s more of spreading a message of community.
Also paying it forward as far as acknowledging and bringing to the forefront what Americans have done. Not just African Americans but what Americans have done. When you watch this movie there are as many Caucasians as there are black people out there fighting for equality, and I think that is so important. Many people want to pigeonhole this era, or this movie, or even Angela Davis, as being a black history figure. No, no, no. This is not a black history story or an African American story only. This is an American story where Americans gathered around Angela Davis, around the idea of her representing justice and freedom. Americans rallied behind the idea that all people in this country and in several parts of the world should be free and have equal rights. This is story about America, and I think that, for me, I’m paying it forward in that way. It just so happens that Angela Davis, who’s an African American woman, is at the center of the story, but this is about justice and freedom for all. That’s what she represented, and that’s why she became such a powerful political icon.
I hate that people pigeonhole this era as something that’s just black history because it’s not. This is American history, and you will see some amazing, powerful individuals that stood behind Angela Davis. Not just behind Angela Davis but behind the ideals of what this country should represent. You will be shocked. You think you know the story, but you don’t.
DC: If there’s one thing you’ve learned from Angela Davis, the most important experience you’ve taken away from telling her story, what would that be?
JPS: The most important thing? It’s so funny, and I think I haven’t quite grasped it yet, but I’m going to tell you what intrigued me most about this woman. In meeting Angela, there is a gentleness, and there is an untarnished sense that, you know, this woman has lost many friends. She has witnessed the worst of humanity and the best of humanity. In meeting her, I did not know who Angela Davis was. I would have never thought in a million years that this woman would have had the life that she’s had. There’s so much peace and so much gratitude and openness. I’ve met other people that have been part of this movement, and something gets stolen — a piece of your heart or a piece of your light. Angela Davis, throughout the film when you watch her, there’s a certain grace that she keeps.
I still haven’t been able to figure out what that quality is, but what I know is this: I have to focus on things in ways that don’t steal from me, that only add. I know that no matter what I’ve been through or what challenges I’ve had, there is no reason for anything to be able to take something from me. It should only add. It should only make me more loving and more powerful, not less. It shouldn’t diminish me in any way. That’s what I’ve learned from her. I have to be very careful with how I choose to experience things because I want to walk like (Angela Davis) does.
“Free Angela & All Political Prisoners” will be playing at AMC Bay Street 16 in Emeryville.
Contact Grace Lovio at [email protected].