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Jada Pinkett Smith: Respect For Angela Davis' Turmoil ... And Hair


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, it took a while, but you can now see women of color on the covers of so-called mainstream women's or lifestyle magazines. So now we're asking: Should it go the other way? Will there ever be a white woman on the cover of a major black or Latina magazine? We'll talk about that in a few minutes.

But first, we learned more about a young black woman who found her way onto the covers of Newsweek and Life magazine and the front pages of the nation's major newspapers in 1970. Her name is Angela Davis, and you might remember her as the woman with the big afro. Or you might think of her as the college professor who had to fight for her job when her membership in the communist party was revealed. Or you might think of her as the radical who went underground after guns she owned were connected to a kidnapping attempt on a judge that ended in several deaths.

Now there's a new film that opens tomorrow in which Angela Davis tells her own story and gives a sense of why she was and remains one of the most popular and polarizing figures of the 1960s and '70s. The film is called "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners." It was written and directed by Shola Lynch. One of the film's executive producers is a name you also surely know, the actor, director and entertainment mogul Jada Pinkett Smith. We caught up with her just before the film's premier in New York.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JADA PINKETT SMITH: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I'm assuming a lot of people would like your help getting their projects finished and distributed. So why did you want to get involved with this one?

SMITH: You know, I - the documentary was sent to me by my good friend, Sidra Smith. And she said, I really, really want you to see this documentary. We still need funds, and we need help with distribution. And so I watched the documentary, and I was completely floored. I mean, I thought I knew the story of Angela Davis until I saw this documentary, and I just thought that it was a piece of American history that has not been told. And it was so powerful, and so I said I need to do everything I can to assist this documentary.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about that, if you will. In fact, the film's tag line is, you know her name. Now, you will finally know her story. What piece of her story do you think was the most surprising to you?

SMITH: You know what was most surprising to me is that the idea of what she inspired, not just nationally, but throughout the world, that she became this figure that embodied justice and freedom, and that people all over the world that were fighting for justice and freedom, you know, used her as the symbol in which to forge ahead. And so I had no idea that she had such a world impact, and the amount of impact that she had here in our own country.

And in watching it, it kind of made me look even at - just in the context of what America is today, I look at Angela Davis now as being a figure that was really in the middle of the building blocks of the America that we have today, and that she was really part of a time where America was shifting its consciousness, and she was a big part of that. And I look at this story as being one of the reasons and parts of the path of how we've gotten to have an African-American president, or even for myself or my husband or, you know, my kids to exist in the way that we do.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, though, the film really captures both - I don't know - the intensity of those times, the level of violence that...


MARTIN: ...people experienced around political discourse.


MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip. This is a clip of Angela Davis recalling how she learned that she had been charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy - and reminding people once again that that was because the guns that she had bought had been connected to a kidnapping attempt of a judge in an effort to free another man who was deemed a political prisoner. And here it is.


ANGELA DAVIS: He wanted the death penalty three times. That made me realize how serious they were. And, again, it made me realize that it wasn't about me, because, first of all, I couldn't be killed three times. It was about the construction of this imaginary enemy and, you know, I was the embodiment of that enemy.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things I think you hear in this clip, of course, is that, also, I think many people forget that she's a classically trained scholar who was a professor of philosophy who had done her training in Germany. And you kind of hear that...


MARTIN: ...in the precision of her speech. She is like a lot of figures from the '60s in the sense that, at the time, these were people who evoked hatred in some quarters. And now, some of these figures have just become really beloved, you know, cultural figures. I mean, I'm thinking about somebody like Muhammad Ali, for example, who was vilified for the stance that he took on the Vietnam War. But other people, though, subsequently have said, you know, maybe he was right. And then he is, of course, you know, a beloved sports figure, even to the point of being selected to carry the torch at the Olympics.

I wonder where you feel Angela Davis fits into that. I mean, do you think that - she was always admired by some, but many people still feel she played some role - she was acquitted, as I think the film makes clear, of the specific charges against her. But many people feel that she was, in part, complicit in some way in the death of another human being and have never forgiven her for that. And I'm just wondering how you feel she is viewed now, and how you feel about how she's viewed, if you see my point.

SMITH: You know, every point of view should be respected, and, of course, I understand that point of view, as well. But you and I both know that our history is riddled with controversial figures, and our history is riddled with the consequences of political strife and political wars. And so there will be people that will not forgive some of those who have taken certain stances for their beliefs, but those are stories that still need to be told, because it is part of our history.

But it's quite understandable. I don't think that we are supposed to live our lives to be liked by everyone, because I think that that is the very thing that paralyzes people not to stand up for what they believe and make change in the world. And sometimes, you know, when you take a very strong point of view in regards to something, it's natural that there's going to be a group of people that aren't going to like you for it. That is the nature of the universe. And so I would say to that, I understand. I totally get that, you know, and I understand why Angela has taken the positions that she has.

MARTIN: Is there any part of her story that particularly resonates with you?

SMITH: I just think the idea of her having the courage to not back down from what she believes, and then when she got into more difficulty, how her value system strengthened even more. And I have to tell you that you might not necessarily believe in her political beliefs, and you might not necessarily appreciate her stance on certain things, but I tell you what. There's not a human being that I don't think that could look at Angela Davis and have respect for the courage to stick to her values and stay strong in her convictions through all of the turmoil that she encountered. And that is something to respect, because I - you don't see that a lot these days.

MARTIN: You know, in the past, she's - Angela Davis - have heard her in interviews lament the fact that she's remembered for her hairdo by some people. Is there some way in which you're hoping that this film will redirect how she is seen?

SMITH: Oh, absolutely. I think that, you know, another reason why I felt like this movie needed to be brought to the forefront is because I think that people will see Angela Davis as a human being. She's been kind of like this - just this figure that you see on t-shirts with this afro, and people call her a radical and, you know - and you don't really connect a human side to her. You just know her as a revolutionary or, you know, you do connect power to her, but you don't really see her as a woman or as a human being.

And I think that with this story, you will see this intelligent, graceful, eloquent woman who was in the midst of this political strife, and it's quite extraordinary to see the amount of calm power and grace that she was able to keep during, you know, this very turbulent time.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Jada Pinkett Smith. She's one of the executive producers of a new documentary premiering tomorrow. It's called "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners."

I wanted to ask, just in the time that we left, about the fact that you helped to bring this film to fruition, to finish the film and distribute the film through the production company that you own with your husband, Will Smith, as you mentioned, along with Jay-Z.

You've also worked together to bring another icon that may not have been as well known, Fela Kuti, to the stage in a stage production that has been ecstatically reviewed and has - and I'm just interested in: Is this how you see yourself at this stage of your career, as a facilitator of others' work? You're still doing your own.

SMITH: Yeah, I do. I really do see, at this particular stage, to facilitate the power and the work of others. And, you know, people constantly are asking me: When are you going to get back in front of the camera? When are you going to do a television show? When are you going to do another movie? And I'm sure I will, but right now, I'm getting so much joy out of flowing my power to others to illuminate their achievements and to illuminate paths that have been created so that even people like myself, like I said before, can even exist.

And, you know, for women like Queen Latifah, you know, we're producing a talk show for her. It is such an honor and my pleasure to be able to flow my knowledge, my power, my friendship towards her to create this particular talk show for her. And I really get my joy out of that.

MARTIN: You also did get in front of the camera, though, in a really profound way for a music video that you produced a couple of months ago. This was Salma Hayek...

SMITH: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...against sex trafficking. You did a music video. It's one of those things that, people who see it, find it very hard to get out of their heads. The song is called "Nada Se Compara." You filmed it in both English and Spanish and, in English, it's nothing can measure, nothing can compare, and it's about sex trafficking. I just want to play a short clip and remind people that you filmed this in a bare room with a bare mattress, completely nude, yourself.

SMITH: Right.

MARTIN: And I just want to play a short clip for people who don't remember. Here it is.


SMITH: (Singing in Spanish)

MARTIN: It's a really painful and profound, you know, piece which tells the story of girls who are lured into sex trafficking through a boyfriend or somebody who they think loves them. And I did have to ask, as a mother of a daughter and sons, that the decision to film it in such a raw way, was that a hard decision? Why'd you think it was important to do?

SMITH: Oh, I thought it was very important. And there's a lot of messaging tied into that particular piece, you know, the idea of, you know, the politics of a woman's body in connection to the violence in which a woman's body is always up against. And, you know, the idea of wanting to show the vulnerability and the beauty of a woman's body and the idea of exploiting that beauty and that sensuality and talking about the exploitation of that body and the violence that is used against that body in juxtaposition to its beauty.

And so, you know, Salma and I just felt like it was very important to go as raw and as honest with the exploration of this particular topic as possible.

MARTIN: Jada Pinkett Smith is the executive producer of "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners." It opens in theaters on April 5th. She joined us from New York.

Before we let you go, Jada Pinkett Smith, I want to ask you about one other discussion you've kicked off, along with all these others, and that is...


SMITH: I love you.


MARTIN: A couple of weeks ago, you posted on your Facebook page, asking if white women should be included on the covers of black magazines like Essence, for example. We're going to actually talk about this next with a diverse group of magazine editors on the show. I'm wondering, what made you think of this, and what kind of response did you get?

SMITH: You know, this is - any time that we're dealing with race, it becomes very, very, very touchy and very, very, very difficult. And looking at even the "Free Angela" movie and looking at how many people were involved and gathered around this black woman, you know, who represented justice and freedom, it wasn't just black people that rallied around Angela Davis. But there was many white people and Latinos and Asians and people that believed in what she represented, which was the idea of freedom. Right? And so I don't know, if she didn't have the full support of everyone that came in her defense, would she have had the success that she had? Right?

And so now I'm looking at the world today. I'm looking that we have a black president, and I'm saying to myself, OK. How do we push the boundaries? How do we start thinking outside of the box to continue to amass more power as a human community, as a community of women, as well? And so that is really why I posed that question in a very small territory, and just talking about magazines and trying to get us all to just start thinking about extending or thinking outside of the box in order to further our progression as a community.

And so my belief is that there's a lot of work for us to do in the world as women, and we need one another. We need black women, Latinas, white women, any woman that you can think of. There is not an issue that a woman will come up against that I think is fair to say, oh, that's a white woman's issue, or that's a black woman's issue or that's an Asian woman's issue. Any issue that deals with a woman is a woman's issue, and I think that the more women we have and that we can bond together outside of the barriers in which we create for ourselves, we have more power to achieve more.

And I feel like we have, also, more women in the world that are amassing power, and we need to be able to flow that power back and forth to one another, and there needs to be reciprocity as far as the exchange of power.

MARTIN: How do you feel about the responses? Some people thought, oh, well. It's an interesting idea. Some people were just...

SMITH: Oh, people were pissed.

MARTIN: They were? Well, yes.

SMITH: People were pissed, and let me tell you something: I understand that response, and I completely get it. And, like I said on my Facebook page, I don't have the answers, but I do want to start posing those questions and start to get us at least talking about it and moving forward. It will create a bit of anger and chaos, because we're sitting on unresolved issues. So naturally, people are going to be enraged. Naturally, people are going to be upset, because these are topics that we're so afraid to talk about, but we have to start talking about them so we can start passing through and moving through that stage of anger and get more understanding.

MARTIN: Jada Pinkett Smith was with us from New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: We thought we'd pose Jada Pinkett Smith's challenge to two women who have deep roots in the magazine industry, both in so-called mainstream magazines and magazines geared to women of color. And we wanted to ask them what they think about her question if ethnic outlets should consider a white cover girl. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.