If you are either from or of the Philadelphia area, chances are you know much better than to bring up Mumia Abu-Jamal in mixed company. From a distance, the Mumia case might appear to be a harsh study in race politics … completely polarizing along surface lines. But a closer inspection reveals there’s something much deeper at work here; something indicative of the ongoing struggle between institutional thought and revolutionary opposition.
Was Mumia Abu-Jamal guilty? Was he a victim of the system? Should Mumia be afforded the right to a new hearing? Despite the fact Mumia was both tried and convicted more than 30 years ago, the public outcry – ringing out across both bows – has not quieted one smidgeon in the three decades since. At the center of it all is Mumia himself, left to rot in Mahanoy Prison, after his death sentence was commuted in early December, 2011.
As a result of his incarceration, Abu-Jamal has come to symbolize much more than he ever might have on the outside. Yet, the man is still considered an irrepressible scourge by local critics, many of whom (e.g., Buzz Bissinger, Michael Smerconish, and Ed Rendell among them) refused to be interviewed for Revolutionary, a documentary which – despite some effort on the part of Stephen Vittoria – falls decidedly pro-Mumia.
Long-Distance Revolutionary does not concern itself with whether Mumia is innocent or guilty. It does not dawdle over evidence, nor devote more than a few spare frames to the early morning hours of December 9, 1981 – hours during which Mumia was subsequently convicted of shooting Daniel Faulkner at close range. Instead, the film tends to focus on who and what Mumia was in the years leading up to his arrest, and – more importantly – who and what he has become in the years since. Vittoria covers Mumia’s induction into the Black Panthers, his affiliation with the MOVE Organization, as well as his rise to become President of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, and his well-documented fall from grace. Revolutionary plays that off the strong-arm tactics of Frank Rizzo, a pair of ultra-violent confrontations between Philadelphia Police and the MOVE Organization, and the ongoing prevalence of white supremacist beliefs originally outlined in The Philadelphia Negro.
If Long-Distance Revolutionary is striving to make any case, it is the case for what Mumia Abu-Jamal could have been … would have been, had it not been for violent waves of hatred; had Abu-Jamal continued his ascent, had he not been black-balled by bureaucracy, spurned completely by white colleagues … had he not been parked along the dark side of 12th & Locust on that cold and fateful evening; or – perhaps better still – had that cold and fateful evening never happened altogether.
The only real sticking point being, it did.
And, depending upon your perspective, that is either the eternal shame or the eternal rub of it.
(Mumia: Long-Distance Revolutionary opens this Friday, February 1st, at New York City’s Cinema Village.)