Mumia: Long Distance
Revolutionary (or, as it's titled on the screen, Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal) is an excellent, intense, illuminating
and ultimately hopeful documentary film about a black journalist who spent
decades on death row (and is still in prison) for the murder of a police
officer in Philadelphia.
The film allows itself time to set the scene, and it’s
all completely engaging. It’s not only Mumia’s story that’s fascinating, but
everything that led to his story. There is an early quote: “There is not perhaps anywhere to be found a
city in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia.”
That was said by Frederick Douglass in 1862. This documentary shows that not
much changed between 1862 and 1982, when Mumia was convicted. Dave Zirin, a
sports journalist, puts it this way, regarding the city: “It’s never embraced the greatest boxer, I would argue, to ever really
hail from Philadelphia, and that would be Smokin’ Joe Frazier. And the fact that Rocky
Balboa, a fictional white boxer, gets the statue, I think it says so much about
the city of Philadelphia.” (And yes, there is a shot of a statue of Rocky.)
Philadelphia was a city of mostly poor people, both black
and white. And so there was competition for jobs, and black people were seen as
encroaching on the space of white people, leading to racial tension. Born in
that city in April of 1954 was Wesley Cook (who would later take the name Mumia
Abu-Jamal, partly because of the example set by Muhammad Ali). Mumia says, “We didn’t have a lot of things, but we
didn’t think anybody had them.” Poverty was the norm. As a child, he stood
out, as he would read to the other children on their porch.
He became politically active as a teenager when a police
officer kicked him in the face. Mumia says that cop kicked him straight into
The Black Panther Party. It was there, at the age of 15, that he began his
career as a journalist, writing for the Black Panther paper. He soon began his
radio career, working at Temple University radio.
The mainstream media were not covering the rampant police
brutality in the city. But Mumia was, which very early on made him a person of
interest to the police. He became quite popular on the radio, and in 1981 Philadelphia
Magazine named him one of the 81 people to watch in the greater Philadelphia
It’s nearly an hour into the film before we get to the
crime that sent him to death row. By then, we’re completely engaged, caught up
in this man’s life. Mumia was sentenced to death for the homicide of Daniel
Faulkner. The film then shifts to Mumia’s life in prison, and the re-emergence
of his voice in journalism. The film’s one major weakness is that it doesn’t
delve into the details of what happened on that night in December, 1981.
Granted, it’s not really the film’s focus, but I am left wanting to know more.
This film features many interviews with journalists,
professors, and activists, including people associated with the MOVE
organization and The Black Panther Party. There are also interviews with Lydia
Barashango (Mumia’s sister), Terry Bisson (Mumia’s biographer), Frances Goldin
(Mumia’s literary agent), Alice Walker and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
There is some incredible old news footage, including
footage of a George Wallace speech in which he exclaims, “Segregation forever.” Wow. And
the stuff about Frank Rizzo, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner, is stunning.
There is an audio recording of him bragging that his police force “could invade Cuba and win.”
There is perhaps a bit too much of people praising Mumia
toward the end of the film. (A little of that goes a long way.) But it’s
understandable. You are left with the feeling that Mumia is a hope for
journalism as a positive force. Because, honestly, very little of what’s shown
in mainstream media is trustworthy, and absolutely nothing that comes from the
The DVD includes the short film Manufacturing Guilt, which was also directed by Stephen Vittoria
(the writer/director/editor of Long
Distance Revolutionary). This film focuses on the actual crime, with lots
of specific information, going point by point over everything that is known,
including a journalist’s photos of the crime scene (those are amazing, by the
way). Basically all of the questions I had after watching the feature are
answered in the short. So be sure to watch both.
Mumia: Long Distance
Revolutionary was released on June 11, 2013
through First Run Features.