Film Review: Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary

This tiresome documentary on the life and work of activist journalist and convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal buries its subject under waves of gratingly repetitive accolades.

In Stephen Vittoria’s Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, once is never enough, and three times is barely getting started. Over the course of a patience-taxing two hours, Vittoria makes the same point time and again, varying nothing but the wording and the people saying it.

The film’s thrust is that Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia journalist currently serving a life sentence without parole for the 1981 shooting death of a Philadelphia policeman, is one of the great radical voices of our time. To prove this, Vittoria trots out everybody from actor Giancarlo Esposito (who staged a controversial performance of Abu-Jamal’s writing in the 1990s) to firebrand intellectuals like Cornel West and Angela Davis to state their case. Abu-Jamal may be what Vittoria and his interviewees think, but this is not a film that will convince anybody of it.

Vittoria starts with a slew of imagery and words from conservative media figures and some guys on the street in Philadelphia for whom Abu-Jamal is the worst of the worst. “A lowlife that should have been executed,” one says. Another denounces the “repulsive, reality-denying myth” that they say has sprung up around Abu-Jamal. With this as backdrop, Vittoria sketches Abu-Jamal’s young life in virulently racist Philadelphia. Abu-Jamal grew up there as a smart, political kid with thoughts of being a journalist. In one of the many powerful segments of old interview footage that Vittoria leavens throughout, Abu-Jamal credits the policeman who beat him up while protesting at a 1968 George Wallace rally with igniting his political consciousness. He says the cop “kicked me right into the Black Panther Party” at the age of 14.

For a decent stretch after this, Vittoria is still able to pull together a basically informative, if structurally deficient, documentary about Abu-Jamal’s growth as a radical journalist in the racial ferment of 1970s Philadelphia. The film is insightful in identifying the brand of structural racism and nearly psychopathic violence that Philadelphia police chief Frank Rizzo (“I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot”) brought to his job. It seems inevitable that this style of nightstick policing would evoke a violent response from the city’s black militant population. But as the film goes on, Vittoria casts a wider and wider net, and loses touch with his story’s unique characteristics.

This problem hits its peak when the film comes to the moment that would define Abu-Jamal’s life: the night in 1981 when a confrontation between the journalist and policeman Daniel Faulkner resulted in both being shot. Faulkner died and Abu-Jamal received the death sentence (commuted to life without parole in 2011). Although that shooting is the moment around which Abu-Jamal’s entire notoriety pivots (his supporters believing he was railroaded by the city’s black-militant-hating power structure, and his enemies calling for vengeance), Vittoria blips right past it with only a glancing mention. By never addressing the particulars of the shooting and taking Abu-Jamal’s innocence for granted, the film critically undercuts the flood of encomiums that follow.

For all its weaknesses, Long Distance Revolutionary—taking its title from the great populist Cornel West, as usual the most soul-stirring of guests—could have served as a basic thumbnail sketch of an unquestionably fascinating man. Although the staged readings of Abu-Jamal’s many books published from prison tend toward stilted, poetry-slam theatrics, the footage of the man himself is always gripping. In particular, the mellifluous cadences in audio of his radio reports from his 1970s work in Philadelphia (when he was a rising star with the local NPR affiliate) reveal a true master of the form. But it becomes clear that Vittoria is not interested in placing Abu-Jamal in any kind of intellectual, political or historical context. The film wants to simply voice left-wing bromides denuded of any sting for being so generalized and to trot out one guest after another to proclaim Abu-Jamal a visionary radical hero.

A tiresome film about an electrifying man.