Before the State of Pennsylvania passed the so-called “Mumia Law” in 1996, which prohibited the filming or photographing of a prisoner sentenced to death, Mumia Abu-Jamal had several filmed interviews. Director Stephen Vittoria uses this archival footage efficiently and effectively to raise questions about Mumia’s incarceration and career as a journalist.
In one of them, a reporter settles in and comments about the the surreal aspect of interacting with someone who is both behind glass and manacled as a condition of having a visitor. When he asks Mumia how conducting an interview under such conditions makes him feel, the prisoner, ever the journalist himself, turns the question back on the reporter: “Do you feel safer?”
It is a small exchange, no longer than fifteen seconds. It is also the film in microcosm, not so much arguing Mumia’s innocence as presuming it, and confronting those indirectly addressed by it with larger, more difficult questions of meaning rather than questions of fact.
It was also the moment that Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary won me over completely. It did so because I answered the question as though it were addressed to me. And the answer was “no.”
That answer is, of course, informed by my belief that Mumia did not commit the crime for which he was convicted, the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. The sight of a guilty man in chains may make us feel marginally safer; the sight of an innocent man in chains just makes us feel a different kind of scared. In the latter case it is a fear of an institutional hate that runs so deep that the checks and balances on the power those institutions wield are willfully bulldozed to make and maintain a public display of power.
The primary complaint most likely to be leveled against the film is that it does not (re)adjudicate the case, although the First Run Features DVD includes a twenty-five minute documentary, ‘Manufacturing Guilt” that summarizes the recantations, inconsistencies, and contrarian physical evidence, that have led international groups such as Amnesty International to denounce the prosecution. (Mumia’s death sentence was eventually vacated by a district court of appeals.)
There’s not much question that this omission is by design. Director Stephen Vittoria rightly intuits that visually summarizing Abu-Jamal’s Wikipedia page could well be emotionally satisfying but would ultimately be less persuasive than simply allowing viewers to see the man and hear his words as read by performers and academics such as Cornel West, Alice Walker, and Giancarlo Esposito.
The portrait that emerges is of a man who, God knoweth how, looks and sounds less angry than those who continue to question his conviction. The United States Congress interrupts its business to pass a resolution denouncing France for naming a street after Mumia. Bob Dole is shown denouncing PBS for giving Mumia a platform to speak. The deeply felt need to ensure that Mumia not only remain incarcerated but rendered silent and invisible lends much credence to Tariq Ali’s observation that “the worst thing is that people get used to atrocities.” Is that our hope? Our desire? I pray not.
It’s not just Mumia Abu-Jamal who deserves better, it is Daniel Faulkner. If, amazingly, the argument that an innocent man spent two decades on death row is not enough to rouse us to action, perhaps the sober reflection that every wrongful conviction means that a murderer escaped justice will.