Think of polarizing figures on the left from the past 50 years -- say Bill Clinton or Martin Luther King, Jr. or a young, medal-throwing John Kerry -- and every one has inspired an almost barbaric hatred. It's not surprising, then, that a leftist figure who's a convicted murderer, and who speaks like Noam Chomsky but is black with dreadlocks, is on the right's all-time enemies list. Despite his 30-year incarceration, Mumia Abu-Jamal has continued to infuriate people by airing his views in public through media interviews, numerous books and radio essays, and now through a documentary that considers him a heroic figure who's been wronged by a flawed justice system.
Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, which opens this Friday, August 23 at San Francisco's Roxie Theater, is a paean to Abu-Jamal's doggedness and uncompromising political views. Abu-Jamal didn't orchestrate the movie, which was produced by documentarian Stephen Vittoria, but he's the flat-out star of the film, which quotes from his works, features him in on-camera interviews, and spotlights prominent supporters who say Abu-Jamal represents some of America's highest ideals.
Vittoria bypasses details of the murder that Abu-Jamal was convicted of, instead focusing on the racism and brutality that permeated Philadelphia's political and justice systems in the years before, during, and after Abu-Jamal's conviction. Vittoria's film will surprise audiences that only know Abu-Jamal's reputation and not the depth of his ideas or the political awakening and journalistic triumphs that prefaced the 1981 killing of a white Philadelphia police officer. Previous documentaries on Abu-Jamal -- like John Edginton's Mumia: A Case for Reasonable Doubt, from 1997, or Colin Firth's In Prison My Whole Life, from 2008 -- have focused almost completely on Abu-Jamal's criminal case.
"Everything that's produced about Mumia -- films, books, articles, live events -- has always covered and been about the case, and I didn't want to get into a he said/she said kind of narrative," Vittoria says in a phone interview. "It's been two groups of people throwing stones at each other from both sides of the street. And as a filmmaker, I learned early on that if you're going to do a documentary, do one that becomes the quintessential documentary on that subject. And I knew that the scope of his life -- as a revolutionary, as a writer, as a journalist, as an activist -- had not been mined."
So in Vittoria's film, we get an arc that explains Abu-Jamal's early involvement with the Black Panther Party, and his reputation as a radio journalist with a distinct voice whose strong views informed his work. Before the 1981 killing, Abu-Jamal was president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and a staff member at NPR affiliate WUHY, and turned down a national radio position because he would have been forced to cut his hair. The murder and legal aftermath turned Abu-Jamal into an international figure; Glenn Beck ridiculed him as a "Communist cop killer," while others labeled him a "political prisoner." In Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, Vittoria interviews a Who's Who of academic, political, and literary figures who explain why they think Mumia is a leading voice of his times. Princeton professor Cornel West leads the brigade of admirers. It's West who says Abu-Jamal has taken a lifelong approach to his activism, which makes Abu-Jamal a "long distance revolutionary," in contrast to someone like former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who joined the Republican Party in his later years.
Abu-Jamal, who was originally sentenced to death (his best-known book is 1995's Live From Death Row), is now among regular inmates at a Pennsylvania prison after legal rulings changed his sentence to life imprisonment in 2012.
Abu-Jamal has not seen Vittoria's documentary, "and I don't know if he ever will," Vittoria says. "I made a case to his lawyers -- and they didn't laugh -- when I said the film is a character witness for Mumia, and as a lawyer, you ought to get him to see it because as you attempt to reopen his case, this should be something he needs to see. I sent him a transcript of the film, so he was able to read it."
Like Abu-Jamal himself, Vittoria's film has divided people, with some reviewers trumpeting the work and others calling it cinematic hagiography. "I was talking to Mumia about the reviews, and he said, 'You know what? All that does is tell me that you did your job. If there are people who love it and people who hate it and there's no middle ground, you're probably a straight shooter on this film.' And I think he's right."
Before its Roxie screening, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary has played theatrically in other major U.S. cities, where it's drawn high numbers of movie-goers. "We've done tremendously well for a small documentary," Vittoria says. "We've played in over 20 cities. When we played in New York, we were the No. 3 documentary in the country (for box office receipts). We played in L.A. and we were the No. 1 documentary (in the area). Those are two big markets. The film has been held over. Whenever a documentary has been held over for a second week, it's clear-cut that the film is doing well financially."
Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary screens Friday, August 23 through Thursday, August 29, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit roxie.com.