Activist Women’s Documentary Biopics â€“ Angela Davis
The documentary biopic uses archival footage, witness or expert (friend, family, colleague, historian) testimony, news reports, her own words/image â€“ to tell the story of a notable woman’s life and work. Like the fictionalized biopics that we’ve seen, it also tells a story and promotes a particular vision of the woman. It often refutes a conventional narrative about her.
Women’s biopics have a tendency of deifying the woman â€“ Queen Christina and Selena are depicted as goddesses through lighting, angles, surrounded by worshippers, use of triptychs, or of making her very flawed or a complete victimâ€”but how does a film depict an intellectual-revolutionary-activist like Angela Davis who is still around to contribute to her own story?
Angela Davis (1944 – ), a professor at UCLA who belonged to the Communist Party, suddenly gained world notoriety when guns she owned were used in a courtroom shootout in Marin County. After going underground for three months as one of the FBI’s ten most wanted suspects, she was arrested and put on trial for three capital crimes. She became an icon of the ’60s, embodying people’s perceptions of Communists, intellectuals, feminists, Black Power and prisoner activists and revolutionaries.
Again, ask these basic questions to come up with common elements of a documentary women’s biopic:
- Why and how is the childhood of the subject introduced, if it is?
- What is the subject’s legacy (family and ethnic origin, parental issues, previous tragedy, socioeconomic background)?
- What stage(s) of the subject’s life does this biopic emphasize most?
- How is the subject’s appearance, and maintenance of it, significant to the film?
- How does the film show that the subject is remarkable, different from the rest?
- Is the subject cursed or burdened by some recurring force?
- What is the role of music in the woman’s life, whether it’s a defining element or just used in the film?
- What is the basic plot of this biopic? How are the events of her life narrated into a story?
- Who are the most important members of the subject’s inner circle (family, friends, associates)?
- [documentaries] Who are the most memorable witnesses of the woman’s life and actions?
- What is the subject’s relationship with her public, if there is one?
- What objects, symbols, animals, people, words recur in this biopic?
- What is the role of romantic love in the subject’s life? The role of sexuality?
- Does the film trace the subject’s transformation? If so, what kind?
- How do other characters fight over the subject, and for what reasons?
- What is the takeaway about this woman’s life?
- How strong are traces of other genre filmsâ€”epic, war, romantic comedy, melodramaâ€”in this biopic?
View Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (USA: Shola Lynch, 2012; Amazon Prime Video, YouTube$, Vudu, Google Play, DVD1958)
A) Ask 3 discussion questions of your own regarding the film. The questions can be about specific techniques used in specific scenes such as camerawork or voiceover narration, the characters, what being an intellectual or activist entails, the plotline of her life, the way performances or speeches or trials are rendered, unexpected outcomes, montage sequences, the ending.
B) Answer 3 discussion questions posed by other students.
other students post for part B ( should answer his three questions):
A. My Questions
1. This movie uses a lot of archival footage to tell Angelaâ€™s story as well as the story for the struggle of civil rights, do you find this more impactful than other documentary movies that would only use reenactments/reconstructions of events?
2. Quite a few of the interviewees were journalists, but not historians. Why do you think journalists were used for their stories instead of historians in this documentary?
3. Whatâ€™s the effect of the music during the montage 28 minutes into the movie, during the shootout images?
In the Ben Marks article, itâ€™s mentioned that political figures or icons of powerful movements tend to have their images take on a life of their own and eventually become removed from the root cause that created the original imagery. Itâ€™s a problem that persists in societies and cultures today, where if you arenâ€™t seen supporting the imagery itâ€™s assumed youâ€™re against it. It creates a problem where people â€œsupportâ€ issues they donâ€™t understand, and then try to speak of them, and only perpetuate misinformation. An interesting conversation would be for all the people that own Angela Davis merchandise, or even items relating to other movements, if they truly understand what theyâ€™re supporting, and if theyâ€™re doing anything else to support than just owning a poster or shirt. The key component of the word activist is active.
In Professor Lodenâ€™s article itâ€™s said that director Lynch was waiting for marketers to ask her to change the title of the documentary, but that it never happened. This poses a great conversation about Angela Davis and the struggles of people of color in general: why is it that when their stories are told they consistently face issues with censorship and suppression, even today? Think about BLM, and how suddenly there were all lives, or blue lives. Censorship of struggles and power from non-whites have been prevalent in journalism and history for centuries, and it would be an interesting conversation to talk about how it persists now, especially in conjunction with Angelaâ€™s story and how not everyone was taught it or knows about it.
C) Respond to at least one other student’s response with polite agreement or disagreement, giving evidence for your point of view.
students’s post for part C:(should reponse to this ):
1. Why do you think that even in counter cultural movements, women continue to take a back seat to the male leaders (which is why Angela Davis didn’t like the Black Panther party and other parties she volunteered at)?
2. How come communism was (and still is) such a controversial topic and actually got Angela Davis in trouble with UCLA for trying to teach because she was a member of the communist party?
3. Why did the law makers project the “imaginary enemy” onto Davis? Why do individuals to that and thus dog pile onto one individual?
Ben Mark’s article talked about how the graphic designs for Davis took on a life of its own and how that made her into an icon. In the end, Mark talked to Davis and she both regards her icon status as both a blessing and a burden. This is very true when an image of a celebrity takes on a life of its own and they cannot control it. At the end, the article says “the phrase on her posters evolved from â€œFree Angela Davisâ€ to â€œFree Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners.â€ So I would say that message is for the better. However, in some cases a political poster can be parodied, even sometimes for an even worse, bigoted message, rendering it more of a joke and trailing it off from the original message.
Frako Loden’s article talks about how the film has a “gaze is firmly on Davis herself and explores the complex woman inside the icon.” Documentaries really do have a gaze, like film, as you can see in this documentary. The audience sees a lot of archival footage on Davis and there is a lot of interviews with Davis herself. So, documentary and narrative filmmaking are not so different at all in that they both have a gaze, tone and focus of some kind, which is so important in telling a story and making sure the story is not too biased in the case of a documentary.
- Marks article, http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/angela-davis-from-fbi-flyers-to-radical-chic-art/ (Links to an external site.)
- Loden review, http://www.documentary.org/magazine/making-revolutionary-free-angela-and-all-poltical-prisoners (Links to an external site.)
Comment on something in these readings that would pertain to an interesting discussion of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. So, two comments.