Yuri Kochiyama in Mountains That Take Wing

Tomorrow night at 8 PM, Chicago Filmmakers will screen the 2010 documentary Mountains That Take Wing as part of their ongoing “Dyke Delicious” series. The film is subtitled “Angela Davis & Yuri Kochiyama: A Conversation on Life, Struggles, and Liberation,” which more or less sums up its content. Directors C.A. Griffith (who will take part in a Skype conversation with the audience before the film) and H.L.T. Quan assembled the movie from two encounters between Davis and Kochiyama—one shot in 1996, the other in 2008—in which the legendary activists reflected on their experiences and political beliefs. Both women seem relaxed and candid in the conversations, making the movie a touching portrait of friendship as well as a valuable lesson in radical U.S. history.

Mountains may be at its most compelling when Davis and Kochiyama delve into their personal histories and consider the events that radicalized them. The latter describes her time in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, which gave her firsthand experience of oppression, but she says she was motivated to work for racial equality by her postwar experience. She and her husband lived briefly in the south then moved to New York City, where they lived in a housing project in Harlem. Spending time with blacks inspired Kochiyama to take interest in their plight, and she joined Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and several other activist groups.

Despite growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis also spent time in New York in the postwar era, having been involved in a high school exchange program that sent her to live with a left-leaning minister in Greenwich Village and attend an integrated school. (It’s interesting to note that her path almost crossed with Kochiyama’s on multiple occasions.) Davis had been familiar with mixed-race gatherings before she came to New York: her schoolteacher mother formed an interracial youth discussion group at their family’s church in Birmingham when Davis was still in grade school. White supremacists set fire to the church in response to the group, which made Davis realize at an early age the difficulties of countering racism in the U.S. When Davis discusses this episode in Mountains, she doesn’t seem depressed; rather, she soberly reflects on how it made her want to work for social justice.

Throughout their conversations, Kochiyama and Davis note the contributions of unsung figures in the civil rights movement, making one realize that radical history shouldn’t be reduced to the actions of celebrated leaders. The interviewees also emphasize the role of women in radical movements, which they believe had gone unacknowledged when those movements were taking place. Davis is plainspoken in her critique of the Black Panther Party (of which she was a member) for downplaying the contributions of women, and Kochiyama supports her argument by describing the work of numerous women she encountered when crusading for black, Puerto Rican, and prisoners’ rights. I hadn’t heard of virtually any of the women Kochiyama discusses in Mountains. The film is not simply a rehash of modern American history but an eye-opening account of some of its hidden corners.