Actress Jada Pinkett Smith isn’t shy about admitting that she gets a real kick from giving her fans (and anyone else paying attention) food for thought in her work for television, film, music, and, more recently, through her various social media outlets.
Over the years the mother of three and wife of mega movie star Will Smith has crafted a cozy niche for herself in Hollywood: starring in box office hits like The Matrix, beloved African-American sitcoms like Different World to even fronting her own heavy metal band, Wicked Wisdom.
Today the 41-year-old with a penchant for posting controversial Facebook editorials has new a food-for-thought project that finds her behind the scenes but ahead of the curve. Pinkett Smith and Overbrook Entertainment, the company in which she partners with her husband and Smith’s long-time producing partner James Lassiter, are executive producers of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, an in-depth and surprisingly revealing documentary that outlines the story of ’70s icon Angela Davis. (Shawn “Jay Z’’ Carter also served as an executive producer on the film.) Davis, an African-American political activist, radical, and Communist Party leader, had strong ties to the Black Panther Party and in 1970 became only the third woman in history to be placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.
The fast-paced documentary shares the fascinating history of Davis’s intellectual roots and reveals her rarely discussed studies at the University of Frankfurt, where she lived with a German family and studied philosophy—certainly not the normal life experienced by an African-American woman from Birmingham, Alabama, during the racially tense 1960s. She returned to the United States and became involved with the Black Panthers and the Communist Party. In 1969 she also became an acting assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA, where then Governor Ronald Regan urged the board of regents to fire her due to her ties with the Communist Party.
“This was just something I felt I had to be a part of for so many reasons including for my grandmother’s sake,’’ says Pinkett Smith. “My grandmother did so much work for civil rights and would talk about people like Angela all the time while I was growing up. I knew I had to get behind a project like this in her memory. She’d be so proud.’’
Unlike Pinkett Smith’s late grandmother, most know very little beyond the basic facts of Davis’s arrest. In 1970 Davis was implicated and charged with buying guns for a thwarted prison escape attempt for the Soledad Brothers, three men, including George Jackson, accused of killing a prison guard inside Soledad Prison and who all had ties with the Black Panthers. In an attempt to free the men, Jackson’s brother took a courtroom hostage in a situation that left several people dead, including a California judge and Jackson’s 17-year-old brother, Jonathan. Davis was on the run for two months before being captured in late 1970, and was later found not guilty of all charges in 1972 by an all-white jury.
“She never apologized for her politics or her associations and she always looked fabulous doing it,’’ says Pinkett Smith, referencing Davis’s memorable and perfectly coifed afro that remained of a symbol of black pride throughout the ’70s.
In the documentary, directed and deftly written by Shola Lynch, Davis herself gets to recount the politics and actions that branded her a terrorist and while at the same time spurred a worldwide movement calling for her freedom as a political prisoner.
“I thought I was pretty educated on Angela Davis until a friend brought me this film and asked me to consider being a part of it,’’ said Pinkett Smith. “I was amazed at how much of her story I didn’t know and I knew that if I hadn’t heard that much of it how many other people hadn’t either.’’
One of the most significant and lesser known aspects of Davis’s experience that the documentary exposes is the strong romantic connection Davis shared with inmate George Jackson, one of the Soledad three, which was later used by the prosecution to suggest her main motivation for getting involved in the prison escape in the first place. History has traditionally presented Davis, as it often does with black women of note, as a hardened, unemotional woman motivated only by anger and rage. Davis, who gave her own opening argument during her trial, deemed this charge as sexist, though she did admit a deep connection to Jackson.
“That part was never told in the stories about her on the run and being this radical woman who was about change and political power,’’ said Pinkett Smith. “The love story gives you this entirely different view of the woman, her life, and who she was as a person. She was only 26 years old so she was a kid really. Still she was thrust into this heavy political situation that our kids today have no idea about and wouldn’t have the tools to handle today if it happened to them.’’
Pinkett Smith’s sympathy for Davis, and her perception of Davis’s stunning maturity during a most difficult time, are consistent with one of her most recent Facebook posts, in which she asked the media to give young stars such as Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and Rhianna a chance to grow up without the constant criticism and negative commentary from television and print reporters. “How can we ask our young stars to have a high level of responsibility if we are not demonstrating that same level of responsibility towards them?’’ she wrote in March.
“I see what it does to young people when they are attacked by their peers and adults who should know better,” says Pinkett Smith. “It is bullying when you say nasty things in print about someone who is still a teenager or barely in their twenties. Look at what they said about that poor little girl (Quvenzhané Wallis) at the Oscars. Someone called her a ‘c--t.’ What adult calls a baby that?”
Pinkett Smith adds, “So what if Rhianna likes to put whatever kind of pictures of herself on Twitter or Instagram. Leave her alone. Lord knows what I would have put up there if they would have that back in my day! And leave Taylor Swift alone. She can date whoever she wants to. Ain’t nobody’s business but hers. Give these kids a break and let them grow up before you break them. And then you want to write a bunch of stories about what went wrong.’’
While the actress received a great deal of support for her post defending young stars, she got far less for one in late March suggesting that white actresses be featured in black magazines and vice versa. She illustrated the post with a picture of Charlize Theron Photoshopped on the cover of Essence magazine and Queen Latifah on the cover of Cosmopolitan. She stresses her main goal is to open the door of communication. “I just want people to think about topics in a way that they haven’t done before,’’ says Pinkett Smith, who will serve as executive producer for Queen Latifah’s talk show this fall. “Particularly when it comes to women and the way we view women’s issues in this world. That has to change if we want to progress and grow. I’m raising a young woman and I’m also raising a young man to know how to treat women with respect. That’s so key to me and I’m so thankful that I have a husband that’s always done that to me for my children to see it.’’