Was it simply a "cold business decision" or a callous act of censorship?
This is the question swirling around legendary pro-basketball player Shaquille O'Neal who put a power move on Stephen Vittoria blocking this respected filmmaker's showing of his latest documentary at the movie complex O'Neal co-owns in downtown Newark, NJ, the city were both of these men were born.
Representatives of O'Neal's movie complex have claimed in private conversations with Newark activists that they cancelled Vittoria's film solely because it is inconsistent with their screening practice, countering claims their cancellation sought to squash the film because of its content.
Vittoria planned to show his latest documentary "Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary" at the CityPlex-12 on April 26.
But as the final publicity/ticket sales push for the scheduled screening was about to go into high gear Vittoria discovered on April 11 that CityPlex-12 management cancelled the booking and halted all marketing efforts. Theater officials reportedly even fired a staff member who had worked with Vittoria.
"No official reason was given or has been given for the cancellation," Vittoria said. "We found out through a source at the theater that shortly after a meeting between theater owners Boraie Development and Shaquille O'Neal the film was cancelled."
The suddenness of the cancellation accompanied by initial silence on the reason why fuelled speculation that the cancellation involved the film's subject matter thus triggering claims of censorship.
Vittoria's critically acclaimed film is about imprisoned journalist/author Mumia Abu-Jamal. Unlike past films that focus on "whodunit' aspects of this contentious case Vittoria's film examines the "who' of Abu-Jamal.
An imprisoned journalist, Abu-Jamal's written over a half dozen acclaimed books and thousands of commentaries during in decades in prison -- most spent on death row -- following his 1982 conviction for killing a Philadelphia policeman. Abu-Jamal worked as an award-winning radio reporter before his 1981 arrest.
One of the many favorable reviews states Vittoria's film "puts a human face on its subject, for so long now just an anti-capital-punishment icon"" A New York Times review of "Long Distance" credited illuminating views about Abu-Jamal in the film from leading activists like Dick Gregory and academics like Michelle Alexander.
O'Neal has a long-term interest in law enforcement, associating himself in a reserve capacity with police agencies in Los Angeles and Miami, two cities where he played professional basketball before retiring in 2011 with an impressive string of NBA championships, scoring titles and MVPs.
One controversy in the Abu-Jamal case is abuses by Philadelphia police including officers tampering with murder scene evidence and intimidating eyewitnesses.
In 1981, the year of Abu-Jamal's arrest, Philadelphia police charged five persons with high-profile murders, proclaiming each guilty. However, evidence later proved the innocence of four of those five -- including releasing one from death row -- leaving only Abu-Jamal imprisoned. Courts have repeatedly rejected Abu-Jamal appeals despite evidence of innocence (inclusive of police improprieties) exceeding that uncovered in those four other flawed convictions.
Vittoria said he "expected some backlash to the film because of the truth tends to aggravate the wealthy and corporate elite as well as those who support a false narrative about Mumia Abu-Jamal." Vittoria called the "cowardly move" by the CityPlex-12 a "direct insult" to the people of Newark.
Newark activist Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People's Organization for Progress, stated he met with CityPlex-12 management urging them to reconsider the cancellation even pledging to employ the coalition of 170 organizations and churches he's assembled to ensure a sold-out performance.
Hamm has stated that management told him the cancellation was a "cold business decision" arising from the complex's claimed practice of only showing Hollywood studio produced films. Hamm stated management did acknowledge having shown at least one independent film.