By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
It took eight years to make Free Angela. My husband and children have never known me not working on the film. This has been a hard film to make for so many reasons. One, funding. A third of the budget came from France raised through producers there, De Films en Aiguille. And believe it or not, BET put in a significant amount, specifically Loretha Jones, who came in when I had half the budget raised to give us what I thought would be enough to finish. That was 2010. At that point, I could be in production in earnest. In January of 2012, when the cut was nearly locked, we realized we needed to raise even more to cover the cost of licensing the archival footage. While the archives worked with us on rates--I can say with certainty that our history is being held hostage by corporations--our partners gave more, the Ford Foundation and Canal Plus especially, but it was still not enough. I started sending what I called the "Hail Mary" e-mails to anyone who had ever said, "I can help you raise funds for Free Angela." A friend from around the way in Harlem answered the call. She connected the project with her friend Jada Pinkett Smith. She contributed some finishing funds and really helped promote the theatrical release.
Or to answer your question another way: If I had been fully funded from the beginning, the doc would have taken four to five years.
How much time was spent convincing Ms. Davis to participate in the film? What finally won her over?
It took nearly a year to talk Angela into it. What finally convinced her? Not me, but my work. She finally saw Chisholm '72 and said, "I thought I knew that story." But she said it in a way that made me realize that there was so much about [Chisholm's] story she couldn't know, and finally wanted to know.
I'm really interested in the construction of Free Angela, because I think one of the reasons it works so powerfully is that it almost plays like a fiction thriller. Even folks familiar with the case are on the edge of their seats as the trial unfolds. Can you talk a bit about how you chose to construct the film's narrative?
First of all, I believe the narrative element is important in docs, too, especially historical docs, because if I say "historical doc" you're probably already tuning out or falling asleep. There is extreme prejudice that a doc will be important but boring. The best ones never are. They are also tremendously well-told stories. More specifically, for Free Angela, the construction works because the story is actually a political crime drama, and that is how the people that lived the story experienced it. The construction works because it's authentic.
The use of Max Roach's music in Free Angela was a subtle but masterful stroke of commentary. How did you come to choose it? Was it difficult securing the rights?
The music is a really important part of the storytelling. Every time I start a project, I pick a song to listen to obsessively when doing the conceptual work. For Free Angela, it was "Triptych" from the album Freedom Now Suite. It's something about Max Roach's drums and also Abbey Lincoln's voice--and that scream. That musical, melodic, horrifying, painful scream captures the social, political, and cultural turmoil of the times, which are manifested in the crime that happens on August 7, 1970. It is painful and confusing for everyone involved. Lincoln's voice captures that perfectly.
The Max Roach estate was amazingly kind to us. I cannot thank the family enough for sharing the song with Free Angela.
It is also important to note that "Angela's Theme Song" and the rest of the music were composed by Vernon Reid especially for the doc. His guitar hits all the notes of her personality, from the hard to the soft. In fact, Vernon helped me find Angela's sweetness. He is a tough-guy rock star, but also extremely intellectual and surprisingly sentimental. Sorry, Vernon! I hope I'm not ruining your rep. I think he nailed the music.
Watching Chisholm '72 and Free Angela back-to-back recently, I was struck by the overlap of the moments when they were each breaking down barriers and rewriting the rules of possibility for not only people of color, women of color, but for the country itself. In your opinion, what are the similarities in their characters, politics, and approaches to political life?
The similarity is their strength. I don't mean the typical strength assigned to black women, to endure victimization. It is the exact opposite. Chisholm and Davis share the ability to never see themselves as victims. They only exist to themselves as active agents in their lives, and as a result history. Whether we agree with their politics, seeing this dynamic at work in the context of nuanced storytelling is, I hope, inspiring.
What did you learn about each woman that you didn't already know?
Their sense of humor. Both Chisholm and Davis have a great sense of humor. In fact, it wasn't until the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival that I realized how funny, as in absurd, some parts of Free Angela are. The audience laughed out loud. I hesitate to say this because the doc is definitely not a comedy.
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