Shola Lynch: "Free Angela Touched on an Emotional Truth"

The director sounds off on Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett-Smith and the DVD release of Free Angela.

Posted: 08/20/2013 02:00 PM EDT

The journey of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners was eight years in the making for director Shola Lynch.  Bringing the story of the legendary civil rights icon to the big screen took perseverance and the support of Jada Pinkett-Smith, Will Smith, the Ford Foundation and even France, where the doc is still playing in theaters. The flick, which is co-produced by BET Networks, is available on DVD, Digital Download and Video On Demand today.

BET.com spoke with Shola Lynch about the DVD release, Trayvon Martin, working with Jada, her thoughts on Spike Lee’s controversial Kickstarter campaign and more.

In our interview earlier this year, you said, "I’m tired of hearing that nobody wants to hear stories about Black women." Does the success of Free Angela prove movie studios wrong?
I think the DVD sales will have a lot to do with that. The movie studios think in terms of blockbusters. By those standards, was Free Angela a success? We can’t compete with Spiderman or even Fruitvale Station. Where is the economic model? They'll do it if we can be in the awards conversation and we do great DVD sales. These stories are so important to tell. They’re our stories! 

We couldn’t help but think of your film while watching the George Zimmerman trial. How do you think Free Angela is relevant now with all of the dialogue about Trayvon Martin and the criminal justice system?
When I watched the George Zimmerman trial, I thought more and more about the courtroom scenes in Free Angela. The things that her lawyers did and the movement also did, is that they assumed the jury knew nothing. The prosecutor didn’t do the same thing, didn’t protect Trayvon in that way. You have to take people where they are. In the ‘70s, everybody knew that folks didn’t understand the first thing about Blackness! [Laughs] Now we think, “Oh, it’s just obvious.” No, it’s not obvious. It’s not even obvious to us half the time. So how can it be obvious to a practically all-white jury?

What’s the moment in working with Angela Davis that is going to stay with you forever?
The opening at the Schomberg when we were on stage — that moment will stay with me. The power of her story and the people who showed up to see it, to be engaged with it — [they] came up afterward — people who lived through it and really felt like it had been brought alive in a certain way. Free Angela touched on an emotional truth of a moment. That’s always my objective when I make films.

What’s the moment you will take away working with Jada Pinkett-Smith, who was the executive producer?
The moment I will never forget with her is when I first met her. We’re talking about filmmaking, politics, life — toward the end of our conversation she says, “I’m in.  What do you need?” I will never, ever forget that moment. People just don’t do that. Celebrities don’t do that. True to form, she lent her celebrity, as well as her husband and they also brought Jay Z on board. That’s pretty darn great! [Laughs]

Talk to us about the involvement of BET.
So celebrities do their thing, they come in and help promote. But BET and the French made the film happen, along with the Ford Foundation and smaller grants. Without BET’s blind commitment to the story and faith in my ability to tell the story, Free Angela wouldn’t exist. BET said, “We’re serious. What do you need?” When you have that kind of commitment from your partners, it just doesn’t get better. 

There’s a lot of controversy about Spike Lee on Kickstarter. As an independent filmmaker, what are your thoughts?
I don’t always agree with Spike, but Spike is not Hollywood’s golden boy. He has projects that nobody wants to touch. So if he feels like he can get on Kickstarter and raise some money, more power to him. So many people who are “celebs” are doing that. The equivalent example is when a film is called an “indie film” but it has a 15 million dollar budget. Those of us who are struggling for a million and below, it’s like, “Are you kidding me? That’s not independent!” [Laughs] It all depends on what your perspective is. The thing is, we vote with our dollars. So why not? We live in a free country, let him do it.  I don’t think it takes away from anybody else. 

Why is it important to have a film like Free Angela in your DVD collection?
If you’re going to be a reasonably educated person around Black history and culture, women’s history and culture — then you need to have this in your collection. There’s no other question about that. I think it’s something we ought to give to one another. We all want to talk about Trayvon Martin; we all want to talk about social movements and justice — why can’t we know about the stories where we actually win? Why are we always fixated on the ones that we don’t win? What can we learn from the stories where we win?

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners is available today on DVD, Digital Download and Video On Demand.

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(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

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