The film starts with a message from a Women’s Detention Centre. When the film was released in 1972, Angela Davis was in jail, awaiting trial for aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder. She would be soon acquitted, but the film helps offer some explanation as to why a leading black academic might be imprisoned on such charges. Very little is said about the case itself, but you learn enough that several people in high places didn’t care for Davis very much.
Let’s start with the school board, some of whose members took great exception to her being appointed as professor of Philosophy at UCLA. So someone pops up, calling himself an educationalist who claims that employing someone as a professor before they have a doctorate was an unprecedented act.
The problem is, its simply not true. The middle aged white man who invited Davis explains that nearly all first time professors are still completing their PhDs, and that Davis’s academic credentials – speaking 2 European languages, former student of Theodor Adorno currently being supervised by Herbert Marcuse (“one of this century’s leading academics”) were impeccable.
In her application to be a professor, Davis was asked, in a phrase that has ominous overtones, whether she is or ever has been a member of the Communist Party. Rather than making the usual excuses, she say, yes she is a CP member and she is very proud of it. This may be one of the reasons why she was disinvited from taking up the Professorship for a second year.
Most of the film consists of footage of Davis speaking at demos or being interviewed. She offers an ambiguous position on Russia, China and Cuba. While bein generally supportive she explains that they are not and could not be socialist countries so long as there was a single capitalist country remaining on Earth. On top of this, it would be a false strategy to try to import socialism from abroad – it must be built here in the USA.
Closest to her heart is the struggle against racism. She regularly namechecks George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers and the young black men who are being regularly killed by police. She expresses solidarity with the Black Panthers. And she is a regular presence of demonstrations against injustice – often up front with a microphone in hand.
We also watch her teaching, broad smile on her face and cigarette in hand. She engages cheerfully with her students, and apologizes for the “capitalist” marking system. Marks and exams are much less important that creatively discussing ideas. You get the feeling that students attending her classes benefitted greatly.
As with similar older documentaries being shown at the Berlinale, Angela – Portrait of a Revolutionary is more important for its historical significance than for any intrinsic artistic quality. The film was made by a student, and it shows. The sound quality is poor, and there is no real structure. What we see is a series of scenes with no particular chronology, with not much more uniting them than Davis’s presence.
But what a historical significance. Fifty years on, Davis remains active – both politically and academically – and footage of how she was then helps explain where she is now. Plus, with rising Campus militancy, random police killings of black men and overcrowded prisons, its not as if what she was saying has lost any of its relevance.
In a perfect world, this film would have been made by a more technically gifted director and would contain more background information about things that seemed self-evident at the time. Plus it would have been nice if the interviewers had followed up their original questions (maybe they did, but this doesn’t appear in the film), and that Davis was allowed to make some more practical suggestions for how the movement should organise.
But of course the world isn’t perfect and this is what we’ve got. And if the choice is between this film and nothing, its a no-brainer (the same may not be said by the accompanying film on the programme, which was made by Spanish leftists under Franco and hasn’t aged well). And anyway, Davis is still alive and fighting. Isn’t it time for someone to make a follow up?