You’ve heard about distance learning. Director Stephen Vittoria’s documentary is about a man who was and is a revolutionary in a culture from which he has been removed. The movie, “Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary,” brings together an impressive cast of black leaders and reminds us that Obama’s pathway to the White House was blazed through a tangled forest of racism. Opening at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 this weekend, the documentary is ultimately indulgent in its one-sidedness.
I must confess that before this movie, I had no idea who Mumia Abu-Jamal was and when I originally saw the title of the movie, I thought it was about a political prisoner in the Middle East or Africa. I had no idea it was about an American, someone Angela Davis called “the most eloquent and most powerful opponent of the death penalty in the world” and dubbed him the 21st Century Frederick Douglass.
Mumia was born Wesley Cook in Philadelphia. He is currently 58 and will soon be 59 in April. To put things in perspective, Malcolm X would be 88 in May of this year if he had lived; he was 39 when he died (21 February 1965). Martin Luther King Jr. died in April 1968 at the same age, 39, in 1968. MLK would have been 84 this year.
Mumia was a member of the Black Panther Party until October. He became a radio journalist and was the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, an organization that was founded in 1973.
In 1982, Mumia was convicted of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, who had stopped Mumia’s brother, William Cook. More could be made of w what happened next: Mumia decided to represent himself in court. If you’re fighting for your life, then you probably should get the best expert you can afford. Surely there were black or sympathetic lawyers in Philadelphia or in the state at the time. Whatever the case, Mumia didn’t make a good impression–years of watching “Law & Order” has taught subsequent generations that winning the sympathy of the jury is key. The judge found his behavior disruptive and forced a court-appointed lawyer on him. Three witnesses testified against Mumia. He was sentenced to death and spent three decades on death row.
Thirty years is a long time and Mumia wrote and published several books including the 1995 “Live from Death Row.” We hear excerpts of his writing read by a variety of narrators and some of the shots have the solemnity of a poetry reading for a great literary giant.
In 2005, the original court decision was upheld, and in 2009, the Supreme Court refused the case, however, in 2010 the Supreme Court asked that the death penalty issue be reviewed by the Appeals Court. In 2011, the death penalty was vacated and changed to life without parole.
By the end of this movie, you will have no doubt what Vittoria thinks, but he never satisfyingly puts to rest questions about Mumia’s character. Mumia was removed from court over ten times. That makes you wonder about his judgment. His boast about refusing a job offer because the management would have required him to cut his dreadlocks might sound cool in good economic times, but now it sounds like plain lunacy. Does he know what Disney requires of its employees? What about the classic pearls, pumps and nylons (plus subdued makeup) mantra for women in the office?
The man can write and there is an audience for his books. This movie might help the director recruit more people to a campaign to free Mumia, but as a “Law & Order” fan, the documentary tried my patience. I wonder if Mumia would be able to survive in a world with out agitating something, somewhere, if his rage isn’t what keeps him writing. Perhaps what made him has actually been his incarceration, something like the transformation that overcame Malcolm X. Yet life may have passed him by and the revolution may have ended or at least become more civilized. In any case, we’ll have to wait for a more probing look at Mumia Abu-Jamal.
“Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary” opens at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 on 2 March 2013, but the director will be at the Music Hall on Friday and Saturday (1-2 March) at the 7 p.m. screenings for a Q&A. You can catch him again after the 4 p.m. screening on 3 March (Sunday).