Controversy swirls around Film Festival screening of Angela Davis film


A controversy surrounding The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s (MVFF) plan to screen the new documentary “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” is not unlike the controversies that have followed much of the life and career of the film’s subject, college professor and political activist Angela Davis.

The film, which will be shown Tuesday, August 20, at 7 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs, chronicles the life of the young college professor, Ms. Davis, and how her social activism, which included membership in the Communist Party and connections with Black Panther Party leadership implicated her in a botched courtroom kidnapping attempt in 1970 that ended with a shootout, four dead, and her name on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list. The film focuses on Ms. Davis’s capture and ensuing trial.

The current controversy escalated last week when Chilmark summer resident, attorney, author, Harvard Law professor and political commentator Alan Dershowitz, in a letter to the Vineyard Gazette, asserted that he had been uninvited from participating in a panel discussion following the film by Thomas Bena, MVFF executive director.

The panel will include Ms. Davis, Margaret Burnham, an attorney who has represented civil rights and political activists including Ms. Davis, and Shola Lynch, director of the film. Charlayne Hunter-Gault will moderate the panel, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. will serve as host.

Mr. Dershowitz told The Times in a phone conversation this week that he was asked by Mr. Bena to join a panel discussion but that the offer was later rescinded. Mr. Dershowitz has been critical of Ms. Davis’s positions on prisoners in communist countries and her support of Palestine in the Israeli-Arab conflicts.

“I told him [Mr. Bena] that I would love to be on the panel and here is what I am going to say, ‘She does not believe in supporting all political prisoners, and the film is mis-named,’ and I am also going to say that she has done some very good things during her life and try to give a balanced presentation, but it will be critical.”

Mr. Bena, in a phone conversation with The Times, denies having offered Mr. Dershowitz a position on the panel. “I never asked Mr. Dershowitz to be on the panel. It [the event] is about her court case, and the film is not about her views on Israel. Mr. Dershowitz, I understand, wants to make it about that. I asked him to come and ask his question or voice his concern at the event. He said he would, and I was thrilled.”

Mr. Dershowitz, who represented Ms. Davis in 1970, said that he will not attend the screening. “When you speak from the floor in opposition to a panel and what’s going on there, you always get booed,” he said, “and they always say we didn’t come to hear you, we’ve come to hear the panel. So I said I would not speak from the floor.”

“A handful of people have expressed dissatisfaction that I am bringing Ms. Davis in and only one [MVFF] member has withdrawn support,” Mr. Bena said, “Our festival, since day one, has been about putting thorny issues on the table and inviting people to discuss them.

“This movie is not about supporting anti-Semitism. It is not about supporting one side or the other of the Palestine issue. It’s about a woman who had a controversial life and looking at that life, and that’s the panel discussion.” He said he hopes Mr. Dershowitz will come to the event.

In an added twist, Mr. Gates, a Harvard professor, who called Mr. Dershowitz “my very good friend,” said in phone call to The Times, “There never was a panel discussion, as far as far as I’m concerned. I admire ShoIa Lynch a lot, and of course Angela Davis is an icon. I was asked to introduce Charlayne, who’s the ultimate moderator to create a forum for a conversation. If it were a panel discussion, you would want to have a range of opinions.”

“Free Angela and All Political Prisoners,” Tuesday, August 20, 7 pm, M.V. Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $25, premium seating $50, reserved seating $100. For more information, call 508-645-9599 or visit