DVD Examines Political Prisoner’s Thirty+ Years as a Jailhouse Journalist
Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of America’s most prominent political prisoners but the facts of his case receive little media attention. Now First Run Features is offering on DVD a 2012 documentary, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary but unfortunately it pays little attention to solving the question of why his case is considered by so many to be a miscarriage of justice.
In July 1982 a Philadelphia jury found Mumia Abu-Jamal guilty of murder of a policeman, sentenced him to die, and the case has been a political football ever since. That’s about all we learn here of why he’s in prison in the first place. Amnesty International complained his trial failed to meet international standards but the film provides no explanation as to why AI reached that conclusion.
Instead the film focuses on Mumia’s life before and after his arrest, trial and conviction. We spend about half the movie learning about his youth (he was born Wesley Cook) and how he became a militant leftist journalist in the Black Panther party. The second hour focuses on how, from prison, he’s been able to continue his reporting. We touch on such issues as his being allowed a spot on NPR in 1994, until Congress pressured NPR to kick him off.
We learn nothing about Mumia’s guilt or innocence, what evidence was or wasn’t presented at his trial, nothing about what the state’s case was against him or what his supporters argue. In some ways this film is a thinly disguised promotion for his books, including Live From Death Row, All Things Censored, and We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party.
At other times we’re given a regional history of race relations in Philadelphia, with lengthy coverage of the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE organization, a subject only tangentially connected to Abu-Jamal. Where the film is at its best is when it examines the Black Panthers and the FBI’s campaign to destroy them.
In one of this documentary’s more intriguing side stories, the French city of St. Denis named a street after Mumia Abu-Jamal in 2011. Our Congress found that so important to the welfare of our nation that they spent a whole day making speeches denouncing a street name in a small foreign town. Not one legislator had the courage to ask why so many people continue to argue this man was wrongfully convicted. Ironically neither does this movie.
Interviewees in Mumia include Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, Angela Davis, Dave Zirin, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Amy Goodman, and Ramsey Clark, along with various scholars, former Black Panthers, and MOVE members. At the conclusion we learn, “Shortly after this film was completed his death sentence was at last overturned.” It was changed to life without parole. Already this movie needs updating, as does an earlier film, Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt, released in 1996 and also available as a DVD.