The Mumia Film That Doesn’t Address the Shooting

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 1, 2013

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Having his say: Imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal in a scene from Stephen Vittoria’s documentary, "Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal."

I don’t think it was the wisest idea not to talk about the shooting.

I get that we’re all done with this particular story, that everybody here has already had an opinion on what happened for decades, and that nobody is ever probably going to be proven right. The trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal alone would probably take up the length of an HBO mini-series, so maybe it’s better not to even go there in the first place.

But it just seems like a weird thing to omit, considering the subject.

Stephen Vittoria’s Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal is more a snapshot of a time and a place, about attitudes and oppression. It’s also a hagiography of a voice—and what a voice it is! Speaking as somebody only familiar with him from T-shirts and graffiti slogans up until now, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s radio reports were a revelation—front-line journalism from an urban disaster delivered in both crisp, precise diction and bebop slang. He’s a captivating orator, eloquent and incisive.

We won’t get into the December 1981 killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner because the movie doesn’t seem to want to, either. This film spends two hours talking about how its subject is currently on Death Row (Abu-Jamal’s sentence was amended to life imprisonment without possibility of parole shortly after the film was completed), but then zips over the actual incident so quickly that if I hadn’t been watching it at home on a screener, I would’ve assumed I missed something while in the bathroom.

So we just don’t go there, which I guess is probably better for the blood pressure of all involved.

Long Distance Revolutionary is more interested in the power of education and erudition. Vittoria’s movie is chockablock with oratory, explication and the power of words. Everybody you could imagine and then some are invited to chime in, whether that be Dick Gregory, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Ruby Dee or NPR executives. This is a long, wordy two hours, kids. All are welcome, and it is wonderful to listen to.

We begin with a young, inquisitive child named Wesley Cook, beaten and booted by cops during a George Wallace rally in Philadelphia. He laughs and notes that kick to the face is what sent him spinning into the Black Panther Party. Cook takes a Swahili name and as a teenager is already writing urgent columns from the front lines of protests. He’s practically born a brilliant journalist.

The movie tries to make a case that the FBI’s blatantly illegal COINTELPRO program, created to disrupt grassroots political movements, had been targeting Abu-Jamal since an early age. This is not so much unreasonable or paranoid as it is outlandish that the feds would have their shit together enough to arrange any sort of remotely credible conspiracy involving the inner cities they’d be so much happier to ignore. I just don’t buy it—but then again, I never buy into conspiracy theories regarding the federal government because they all seem to assume a degree of competence of which I just assume our elected officials are not capable. In any case, Abu-Jamal torpedoed his own journalistic career, becoming so singularly obsessed with MOVE that he wound up driving a cab at night just to make ends meet. (OK, so maybe he was a little prophetic about what was going to happen with MOVE, but freelance editors don’t want to hear that.)

And then there was that one night in that cab … Oh yeah, we’re not going to talk about it.

Long Distance Revolutionary ends up being a movie about the liberating power of words that bend over backwards to paste flashy images on top of sentences that already speak for themselves. You don’t need a chorus of pissed-off young female performance artists shouting Frederick Douglass with bad poetry-slam hand motions to sell me on Douglass’ words. He’s Frederick Douglass—you had me at hello. Similarly fall all the weird re-enactments and on-screen graphic effects annotating Abu-Jamal’s phone calls from prison. These are stark and evocative enough on their own; we don’t need people scribbling what he just said all over the screen in an artsy-fartsy font. The editing here is short-attention-span theater.

I appreciate Long Distance Revolutionary for introducing me to the work of a journalist whose vital contributions remain buried due to notoriety. But there’s a big gaping hole in the center of the picture. 

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