Philadelphia’s MOVE and Black political culture on film at TIFF
‘40 Years a Prisoner’

It was over 35 years ago when Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo ordered the bombing of a townhouse in West Philly that was inhabited by dozens of militant Black revolutionaries, killing over 11 people inside the burning edifice, including women and children and the founder of the movement, John Africa. Never before or since has this type of violent act against citizens been done in U.S. history. This revolutionary group called MOVE suffered at the hands of the police, and eventually, nine of its members were given life sentences for the killing of a police officer. The last of those who survived imprisonment were finally released this year after 40 years in prison. And that’s the name of the documentary, 40 Years a Prisoner, featured at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. (The title inevitably echoes 12 Years a Slave.)

Mike Africa, Jr., was in his mother’s womb when the police raided the compound, and he was born while she was in prison. His life story of trying to exonerate his parents, whom he has only known from prison visits, is documented in this moving testament to revolutionary commitment and determination. 40 Years a Prisoner starts with the actions and arrests in 1978 that led to the bombing of the MOVE commune in 1985. The movie reveals that there were also white members of MOVE, which was termed a militant back-to-nature group formed by John Africa.

It wouldn’t be incorrect to compare much of what we learn about the history of MOVE to current struggles for social justice. The story is the Black Lives Matter of the 1970s. Black people were fighting racist police brutality back then, and it hasn’t changed much over the decades of struggle. The film depicts the 1978 attempt by the police to remove members from their homes and includes shocking footage of police brutality and torture. A cop was killed, and Mike’s parents were among those arrested and given long sentences. As he was growing up, it was difficult to meet with both parents who were incarcerated in separate and distant facilities. But he did get to develop a close kinship with his parents and assisted them through their decades of incarceration, ultimately rejoining the MOVE organization and becoming one of its major spokespersons.

Writer/director Tommy Oliver covers the 109-minute story with a human touch, but oddly, narrator Mike Africa, Jr., never mentions or shows the actual 1985 bombing and resultant fire that ended up burning down the entire block of 65 homes. It should be mentioned there is another significant award-winning doc on the subject, Let the Fire Burn (2006) that deals with the bombing and resultant fire in much more detail.

And also, coincidentally, there was another film at TIFF this year that addressed the same subject and filled in even more missing details about the bombing, the fire, and the life of Mike Africa, Jr., as he grew up without his parents.

The Inheritance is the long-awaited film from Ephraim Assili, which covers not only the history of MOVE but also the Black Arts Movement and the director’s own experience within a Black Marxist collective. Filmed in an experimental style, the film flashes from one subject to another, actually including some of the same subjects of the previous film reviewed, including Mike Africa, Jr., and Sr.! They visit the collective for an educational seminar on the history of MOVE and Black struggle.

The story centers around a large Philadelphia house, inherited from a grandmother, that is turned into an experimental Marxist arts center and commune. Black radical books line the many bookshelves in all the rooms, and progressive pamphlets and newspapers are scattered everywhere. Meetings are held regularly where the commune discusses how to move the revolution forward. Historic clips are interjected throughout, one featuring Shirley Chisholm saying, “you can’t change the system by ego-tripping.” Political posters with sayings line the walls, including, “Practice without thought is blind—thought without practice is empty—Kwame Nkrumah.”

The film creates a sensation of political thought, involving dynamic debates on how to organize a collective, how tasks are distributed, and how the males and females relate to each other beyond political relations. It’s an exciting, fertile ground for the flow of revolutionary ideas, the characters living their parts as if it’s a documentary.

The film also features a segment with a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement, poet Sonia Sanchez, along with some eloquent speaking members of MOVE. More info on Mike Jr. is learned—that after he was born in prison he was taken by his grandmother to live out of town, where they were eventually arrested and he was moved to an orphanage. He was later taken by his grandmother back to Philadelphia, where they officially left the MOVE organization. Mike Jr. had planned to rejoin when he came of age, which he eventually did.

Revolutionary films about Black revolutionary history are rare. The Inheritance is reminiscent of the master of cinema Jean Luc Godard’s classic La Chinoise, which also utilizes stark colors, an experimental creative style, and is centered around revolutionaries living in a collective addressing similar issues. The Inheritance is a nostalgic visit back to a time oft forgotten in U.S. political history, a valuable reminder of things we shouldn’t forget. It’s produced, shot (on vibrant Super 16mm), written, and directed by Asili, certainly an artist to keep your focus on. The trailer can be seen here.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.