Possibly the most prominent political prisoner in the world, radical revolutionary journalist Mumia Abu Jamal, is the subject of a new and informative documentary that focuses on his life and beliefs rather than his world famous case. Director Stephen Vittoria (One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern) has crafted a creative documentary interviewing a seemingly endless amount of illuminaries of the Left, and a few opposites added in for flavor. Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, Dick Gregory, Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez, Tariq Ali, Ramsey Clark, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Parenti, Alice Walker and Dave Zirin to name just a few, provide fresh details about Mumia and insight into what made him such an eloquent spokesman for social change.
The film humanizes a dedicated 'long-distance revolutionary,' a term coined by the eloquent hip hop intellectual Cornel West. His imprisonment has steeled his resolve as a revolutionary for peace, justice and equality. He has remained fiercely committed mostly, as Juan Gonzalez states, "because he has been in jail so long this system has not had the opportunity to calm him down."
Opening with a phone call from Amy Goodman ebulliently proclaiming 'welcome to the airwaves of Democracy Now,' Mumia ironically responds, 'well, welcome to Hell.' His early years being followed and kicked around by the police, (he credits one of them for literally kicking him right into the Black Panther Party), his early journalism experience with the BPP and eventual radio journalism are all documented and wonderfully supported with stories by his sister, close friends, and fellow BPP members. Angela Davis, referring to Mumia's limited resources in jail, states, "he reminds us of what writing is all about -" just ideas and a paper and pencil.
Comedian Dick Gregory adds levity to the constant flow of thoughts from great thinkers, 'in the future they'll look back and say 'he WAS the Voice of America.'"
The film first focuses on the city that shaped Mumia's life - Philadelphia, home to keen observers like W. E. B. Dubois and Paul Robeson, with it's racist and white supremacist history. Ramona Africa, one of the victims of the MOVE bombing massacre, and others, talk of the reign of Police Commissioner (and eventual 2 term Mayor) Frank Rizzo, police brutality and the resulting police state, and note this influence on a young Black journalist. Mumia was one of the only reporters willing to cover the anarchistic African American group, MOVE, who became victims of the only bomb dropped on Americans in modern times.
The film reveals his family life, how and why he changed his name from Wesley Cook, his love for his mother and siblings and, although raised Baptist, his almost journalistic approach to all religions, searching out the centers of love. His sister, son Mazi and daughter add poignant moments.
We learn of his early radio career, helping to pave the way for a young Juan Gonzalez, refusing to cut his hair to get a high paying job. People were transfixed by his radio voice, and he easily could have gone on to commercial fame, but chose to remain committed to radical journalism without it being edited by the system.
With the proliferation of digital documentaries in the hands of so many camera owners, it's getting hard to find a film that takes the art to a new level. But director Vittorio has offered a passionate partisan portrayal of a world figure loved by many who feel he was unjustly convicted, a film filled with love for Mumia and his quest for justice, beautiful artwork, artistically framed interviews and loads of new pertinent information for those following Mumia's journey and others who will join the march.
We were able to ask the writer/director/producer/editor, Stephen Vittorio, some questions regarding his latest project:
PW. Why did you avoid any details of Mumia's trial and imprisonment in your documentary?
SV. It was a practical and creative decision. Almost every film, book, article and video has primarily focused on the case. There's nothing new that is that much different with the case, so I wanted to make a film that would get distributed. What did interest me about Mumia was the arc of his life. He is much more than just Dec 9, 1981 - an up and coming journalist, snuffed out by a tragic incident. But lo and behold he resurrects his career under incredibly harsh and draconian conditions on Death Row. He gains an impact around the world and remains committed to his revolutionary ideals. This was the uniqueness for me, the complicated case has been covered over and over again. Also I wanted to depict the remarkable Herculean task that he has to go through to create his work, with no computers or modern electronic resources.
PW. Who is your target audience?
SV. I was trying to aim the film at a progressive audience that understands the impact the American Empire has had on the population of the world. Mumia's writings have expanded into new territory including the machinations of the American Empire. The business we did at the recent opening in New York did so well the run was extended. We reached more than the radical Left. There was mainstream, probably liberals, that said "this is a whole different narrative." A good story will appeal to almost everybody. I tried to make the movie a mirror image of Mumia, a person who through the many years never backed off from his radical thinking. It's a personal journey with him, his writings and beliefs. When people ask me what it's like to make a movie about a radical, I say 'I don't think Mumia is much of a radical at all. He chooses peace over war, feeding people over starving them, healthcare over no care. To me radical means lobbing cruise missiles into neighborhoods. Or the guys on Wall Street, that's radical what they're doing to the people of the world.
PW. How do you feel about the need to be impartial when you make a movie, as opposed to being one-sided or partisan?
SV. That's one of the biggest fallacies - all filmmakers go into a project with an agenda. It's about the interpretation of the facts, it's not about being 50-50. For 30 years Mumia's opposition, the Philadelphia media and establishment, have had a narrative that they've pounded home in a very biased fashion. A few have attacked my strong point of view, saying 'who the hell am I to say the things I'm saying,' rather than address the facts I present. That's the classic role of the press - to protect the status quo, and anyone who steps out of that is some kind of heretic. Like Oscar Wilde said, 'If you're an artist, your responsibility to history is to re-write it," because we know who it's written by, like the 'embedded reporters' in the Middle East who provide obviously slanted reporting. Amy Goodman once said, "if we had state run media in this country, how would it be any different than what we have right now?" The idea of strong impartial journalism does not mean a 50-50 presentation of everything.
PW. Will Mumia be able to see the film?
SV. It's gonna be tough. They don't allow any playback devices in prison. In prison they have BET on television and if we can sell it to them, he might have a chance that way, if the prison doesn't pull the plug on it.
PW. What kind of relationship did you develop with Mumia?
SV. A really nice one. We worked on a previous project that didn't get off the ground, but we used parts of it for this film. We're actually writing a book together now, called Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide and Manifest Destiny. It's going to tell the 500 year story of the Euro-American march across the continent and the building of the American Empire. I should say that Mumia calls usually on Monday nights and we chat. It's been an absolute privilege.
PW. How did you select the many great subjects that were interviewed?
SV. Most of the names came from the research, folks in the BPP, family members, political names that come up in the readings. When I read Mumia's work, I was looking for names of people that HE found interesting and was inspired by. Many were given the same questions to answer and it was a tough job in the editing room. There were some who gave great answers but didn't end up in the mix. I didn't want to go longer than 2 hours with the film. I tried to do it artistically and let the story dictate to me, and let the people talk and see who says it the best. I had a co-editor on the film, Erik Sorensen. You can check out our website for more info on the cast and crew.
The film was acquired by First Run Features and opened in New York last weekend, it will open in Los Angeles March 1st, soon to open in Seattle, Miami, New Orleans, Calgary, Chicago, DC, Detroit, across the country and overseas. Blue Ray and DVD comes out May 21st. For more info on the film go to www.mumia-themovie.com And for some awesome daily radio reports check out Mumia at www.prisonradio.org