LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABU-JAMAL – The Review
LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABUL-JAMAL is a documentary from producer, director, cinematographer Stephen Vittoria about convicted cop killer and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal (real name: Wesley Cook), an articulate, relatively intelligent radical with a distinctive speaking voice and a passion for public relations. Slickly produced, and with an excellent original score by Robert Guillory, the film is presented as a collective form of tribute to Mumia, with dozens of “witnesses” including Amy Goodman, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Ruby Dee, Cornel West, Peter Coyote, Lydia Barashango, Juan Gonzalez, and Linn Washington, all testifying on-camera to the brilliance of the subject’s writing skills. Mumia himself is represented through archival footage, voice-over, prison visitation footage, and by an actor portraying the convicted killer moping in his prison cell.
Before viewing, I had never paid much attention to the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, but the film inspired me to do some research. While I’m aware that it’s possible for an innocent man to be framed, there appears to be little question regarding Mumia’s guilt and LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABUL-JAMAL doesn’t bother making an attempt to argue otherwise. It’s not a film like THIN BLUE LINE or PARADISE LOST that sets out to prove an innocent man is behind bars. Imagine if DELIVER US FROM EVIL, the 2006 documentary about a priest convicted of child molesting, focused on a bunch of celebrities gushing about the brilliance of the subject’s sermons, determined to put a halo on his head without once addressing his crimes. Abu-Jamal is constantly referred throughout the film as “the most famous political prisoner in the United States”, but that’s inaccurate. A political prisoner is someone who is imprisoned for his or her participation in political activity. I hope one thing that Democrats and Republicans alike can agree on is that cop killing is not political activity. ‘Cop killer’ is the term that best fits Mumia is because that’s both the genesis of his fame and the elephant in the room. In 1981 while working as a cab driver, he engaged in a gun battle with Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Mumia was shot once by Faulkner while six bullets from Mumia’s gun hit the officer who died of his injuries. Mumia was tried, found guilty, and was sentenced to death. In 2010, judges on federal appeals courts cited a legal loophole in striking down Abu-Jamal’s death sentence, and the Philly DA refused to seek a new sentencing hearing. Abu-Jamal, now 59, will spend the rest of his life in prison living among his own kind — thugs and criminals. It’s a fate he chose for himself with his actions but whatever else one might think of Mumia, he’s led an incredibly effective media campaign over the last 30 years. Through a combination of political correctness, a warped appeals process, and old-school con-artistry, Abu-Jamal has fabricated a romantic persona for himself: the innocent political activist railroaded by the racist legal system. College students, Hollywood celebrities, and the usual race-baiting rebel rousers have taken the bait.
What proof would Mumia supporters would find acceptable for a murder conviction? It’s irrelevant because this film doesn’t even go there. What LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABUL-JAMAL does is attempt to excuse Mumia’s actions. The film spends a lot of time illustrating the social and political events that went on in Philadelphia during Mumia’s formidable years, circumstances which allegedly created the climate that lead to him shooting officer Faulkner six times. Comparisons are made, and images are shown, of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, as if dark chapters in history are somehow an excuse to kill a cop. The film introduces its own boogey man in the form of Frank Rizzo, the police chief and then mayor of Philadelphia. Rizzo had a volatile relationship with Philly’s black community during his tenure in the ‘70s. The film details a horrific incident in 1985 in which police dropped a bomb from a helicopter to end an armed confrontation with the radical black liberation group MOVE which touched off a neighborhood fire killing 11 people, including five children and the group’s leader, John Africa. This section, illustrated with gripping archival footage, is the film’s best. I had no idea the City of Brotherly Love was such a racial powder keg at this time and I learned a few things, but Rizzo was no longer Mayor when Officer Faulkner was murdered by Mumia. The Mayor was William Green, a liberal-leaning democrat and while the city’s racial unrest may have shaped Mumia’s worldview, it’s hardly a vindication for his crime.
LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABUL-JAMAL is clearly agenda-driven but what exactly is its objective? Everyone in it keeps expressing their desire to see Mumia walk free. Are we supposed to assume that he’s innocent of the crime he’s been convicted of even though the film presents no evidence of that? Did I miss a prerequisite film that laid that out for me? Or are they saying that he may be guilty but should be set free because his writing is so profound and his voice so important? Peter Coyote, who once had an acting career, says of Mumia: “His melodic, silky baritone is gone way too soon” (the timbre of Officer Faulkner’s voice is never described). Mumia enjoys international attention, lucrative book deals, publication in academic journals, speaking invitations, and a regular soapbox on taxpayer-funded radio. The French even named a street after him, so it seems he’s getting more attention as a prisoner than he ever would as a free man. In the film Cornel West merrily refers to the police as “the oppression apparatus” but if you are willing to kill a police officer in the course of his duties, the crime is significantly more serious in the eyes of society. Killing a cop undermines the justice system and makes it harder to enforce the law in general. That’s extra damage, and it makes sense to have a bigger deterrent to discourage it, therefore Mumia clearly deserved his seat on death row. It’s not that hard to understand yet LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABUL-JAMAL bends over backwards to excuse, rationalize, and demand society’s forgiveness for Mumia’s crime. We’re told that Mumia was forced to drive a cab at night because a radio gig he’d been offered, one that would have paid him a six-figure salary, came with the caveat that he cut his dreadlocks and he had way too much pride to do that. The film wants us to accept that Mumia was some great writer before he killed Officer Faulkner, pushing the paranoid myth that he was a skilled reporter exposing corruption in Philadelphia therefore was targeted and framed for exposing government malfeasance. It’s true that he had part time reporting jobs at some Philadelphia radio stations including the National Public Radio affiliate there and may have had a following, but he hadn’t worked as a journalist for over a year before he committed murder. Despite claims on the covers of his books, Jamal had never won any prestigious awards for journalism and any writings by him before he committed murder don’t seem to even exist (try finding them). LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABUL-JAMAL is filled with luminaries reciting Mumia’s writings, all written after his imprisonment, in angry, strident tones. Giancarlo Esposito in particular looks like his eyes are about to pop out of his head while San Francisco-area ‘spoken word artist’ Aya de Leon reads from Mumia’s book Live From Death Row while punching the air like Rosie Perez during the opening credits of DO THE RIGHT THING. Perhaps they’re angry because they’re asked to read Mumia’s stale, lofty-sounding Communist ideology and Black Liberation rhetoric. This grievance stuff may have seemed fresh 40 years ago but today with a black president in the White House, the sneering fury and non-stop victimization is just tiresome. His books reportedly sell well so I guess there’s an audience for this but the more you listen to Mumia and the more you hear testimony about his writing, it becomes clear that he’s a born manipulator who is playing the audience, using the drama of his incarceration to defuse and soft-pedal his crime.
While it’s well-made, watching LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABUL-JAMAL is a strange and maddening experience. Linking the obscene entitlement of a cold-blooded cop killer with the squirmy arrogance of his celebrity followers, it seems to take place in an alternate universe where right is wrong and up is down. Frances Golden, his “literary agent” actually whines that since Mumia doesn’t have access to a typewriter or a computer, he’s forced to write by hand and that his fingers have become calloused! Oh, the humanity! I’m sure Officer Faulkner would gladly trade the bullets in his skull for the poor baby’s sore fingers. Mumia’s written at least seven books from prison and he could probably write more if they would just give him a computer (and he wouldn’t get those boo boos on his fingers). When a British Pakistani writer named Tariq Ali says with a straight face “If there’s any justice in the world, they’ll award Mumia the Nobel Peace Prize, but I’ll bet they won’t”, I started to wonder if LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABUL-JAMAL was some sort of put-on. Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr. are all recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize but does anyone outside of Bizarro World really think a convicted cop killer deserves to join their ranks? This film is clearly part of an international campaign to free a killer. If you’re interested in myths and mass ignorance, there might be something of interest in LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY: A JOURNEY WITH MUMIA ABUL-JAMAL but the best way to deal with someone like Mumia is to ignore hi, so I say skip this film. Dick Gregory says in the film “One day we’ll find out Mumia was the voice of America!” God help us all if that’s true.
1 of 5 Stars