Angela Davis isn’t a character in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” but her name rings out proudly. The scholar and revolutionary’s imprisonment lingers in the background of the film, and Black Student Union president Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) even sports a “Free Angela” button.
Davis is one of the heroes of the student activists portrayed in “BlacKkKlansman,” along with Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael. Ture is played charismatically by Corey Hawkins, but Davis doesn’t show up — in part because she was imprisoned at the start of 1972, the year when most of “BlacKkKlansman” takes place.
(Warning: There are a few plot details about “BlacKkKlansman” below, but none in the text or podcast above.)
The true story on which “BlacKkKlansman” is based began in October 1978, when Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective for the Colorado Springs Police Department, made his first moves toward infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth was first hired by Colorado Springs on Nov. 13, 1972, but Lee ramps up the drama by condensing most of the film into 1972, a more volatile year in the U.S. than 1978.
In 1972, the Vietnam War still raged. Black Panthers and other activist groups were on the rise. And Angela Davis’ fate was anything but certain.
She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944. The city was nicknamed “Bombingham” because of the terrorist bombings carried out by white supremacists trying to stop integration. Her neighborhood was targeted so many times people called it Dynamite Hill. As a Girl Scout, she demonstrated for Civil Rights. One of the “four little girls” killed in the 1963 bombings of the 16th Street Baptist church (the subject of Lee’s film “4 Little Girls”) was a close friend of Davis’ sister.
Davis discovered Communism and the Black Liberation movement in the 1960s. Those positions didn’t sit well with the establishment. In 1969, California Gov. Ronald Reagan fired her from UCLA — and catapulted her onto the national stage.
The next year, she became the third woman to join the FBI’s Most Wanted List, accused of a plot to free a prisoner she loved. When she was arrested after a nationwide search on Oct. 13, 1970, President Richard Nixon called her a “dangerous terrorist.”
The “Free Angela” button that Patrice (Laura Harrier) wears in “BlacKkKlansman” was a popular one in revolutionary circles in 1972. The Rolling Stones and John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote songs about her.
Many on the left believed she had been unfairly targeted because of her beliefs. But on June 4, 1972, an all-white jury found her not guilty.
She remains an activist today, speaking out against President Trump, racism, sexism, the prison-industrial complex, and discrimination in all its forms. Here’s her speech at the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21, 2017.