Mumia Abu-Jamal is a veteran journalist, author of seven
books, and a former Black Panther who was convicted of first-degree murder in
the shooting death of white Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in a
1982 trial deemed unfair by Amnesty International and many others. Abu-Jamal,
who has always maintained his innocence, spent almost 30 years in solitary
confinement on death row in Pennsylvania. The death sentence has now been
officially overturned and since early in 2012, Abu-Jamal is out of solitary and
in general population at SCI-Mahony, with such new "privileges' as contact
visits with family and friends (view photos).
Long Distance Revolutionary features interviews with a range
of longtime Abu-Jamal supporters including Pam & Ramona Africa of the
International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Amy Goodman
& Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now, Cornel West, Alice Walker, Angela Davis,
and many others. Making his first appearance in a film about Abu-Jamal is actor
Giancarlo Esposito, known recently for his role as Gustavo Fring on the AMC TV series,
Featured in Long Distance Revolutionary is a clip of
Esposito reading from Abu-Jamal's first book Live From Death Row at a
mid-1990's event supporting Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia. The rally attracted a
large counter-demonstration outside of the event, that had been organized by
the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). In the film's recent interview, Esposito
reflects upon the intensity of that day, and fearing that his acting career would
be negatively affected by the broader FOP-led campaign of public intimidation
towards those supporting Abu-Jamal. These intimidation tactics surfaced again
this week, as Politics PA reported on a National Republican Congressional
Committee "campaign consisting of online ads reminiscent of Willie Horton and
hundreds of thousands of robocalls" linking Abu-Jamal to congressional
candidate Kathy Boockvar.
Philadelphia's disturbing history of racial oppression and
officially sanctioned police violence is a central focus of Long Distance
Revolutionary's interview with Linn Washington Jr., currently an Associate
Professor of Journalism at Temple University and a columnist for the historic
Philadelphia Tribune--the nation's oldest African-American owned newspaper. In
the film, he comments that "Philadelphia has a veneer of liberalism and this
whole Quaker mystique. The reality is it has been this ruthlessly racist
city--really from its inception."
Linn Washington has been covering the Mumia Abu-Jamal/Daniel
Faulkner case since the morning of December 9, 1981. While not spotlighted in
Long Distance Revolutionary, Washington has continued to report on the many
different reasons that Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial, including a recent test
he conducted with journalist Dave Lindorff. The results are interpreted by Washington
and Lindorff to have conclusively disproved the prosecution's scenario of the
shooting presented at Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial (see article and video).
We interview Noelle Hanrahan and Stephen Vittoria about
their new film examining Mumia Abu-Jamal's life and work as a revolutionary
journalist. Vittoria is the writer, director, editor, and co-producer of Long
Distance Revolutionary. His last film, One
Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern won "Best
Documentary Features" at the Sarasota Film Festival. He also recently was a
producer on two feature documentaries by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney: Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S.
Thompson and Magic Trip.
Noelle Hanrahan co-produced the film alongside Vittoria and
co-producer Katyana Farzanrad. The director of Prison Radio, Hanrahan first
began to record Abu-Jamal's radio commentaries from SCI-Huntington's death row
in 1992, which now total over 2,000 (archived at www.prisonradio.org).
Angola 3 News:Unlike
previous documentary films about Abu-Jamal, your film deliberately avoids the
legal/factual background of Abu-Jamal's case and instead focuses entirely on
his life and work as a revolutionary journalist. Why did you choose to do this?
Steve Vittoria: First
of all, John Edginton made an excellent film about Mumia's case and it was
broadcast here in the States on HBO entitled Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for
Reasonable Doubt? Even though it was made back in 1995, it's a fairly comprehensive
look at the legal narrative. Books, articles, other films, as well as a myriad
of videos have been distributed worldwide that deal with the case.
As a documentary filmmaker, unless I've uncovered something
so different than what's already been created, why traverse ground already
traveled? What has really interested me about Mumia Abu-Jamal since I first
heard his commentaries and read his work was his extraordinary ability to
transcend the Draconian hell that is Death Row and suggest alternative narratives
to the myths of so-called American justice and liberty. His work over the last
decade or so has evolved into a sophisticated and searing indictment of
American imperialism -- on a par with Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and the ever
courageous Arundhati Roy.
In the film, Cornel West sums it up this way: "He forces us
to come to terms with the depths of the crisis of the American Empire." In a
country run by mass murderers, economic rapists, and general run-of-the-mill
sociopaths, you're forced to look for some sanity, some compassion, maybe even
some love in the bowels of this asylum. I found that sanity courageously
written from a dark, dank hole in America's prison gulag.
Here's a man who has been fighting for the victims of a
violent empire since he was fourteen years old. Here's a man who has published
seven books from death row and who has written thousands of commentaries that
have been broadcast all over the world from death row, that impact real
people every day. Remember, thirty years on Death Row and he hasn't blinked.
As a storyteller, that's an incredible story to tell.
The story about his case can be summed in one line uttered
by the judge in his case, the Honorable Albert F. Sabo, who boasted in
chambers: "I'm going to help them fry the n-word." That's all you really need
to know about the case.
Noelle Hanrahan: The impact of Mumia Abu-Jamal's writing and
his radio commentaries is far greater than one, albeit dramatic, incident. Yes, Mumia was shot and critically injured on
Dec. 9th 1981, yet that is clearly not the defining moment of his life. It is not who he was or who he has
become. For the very first time, through
this movie, people can begin to see what circumstances and forces shaped Mumia,
and how he in turn has shaped the world.
A3N:The film begins
with a variety of right-wing talking heads, ranging from Michelle Malkin to
Michael Smerconish, who are shown calling Abu-Jamal a "cop-killer,' among other
things. Why do you begin the film this way? How do you respond to their
SV: The entire film is a response to their lunatic ravings.
It's like taking candy from a baby. I wanted to let the bed-wetters have their
say right off the bat and let the audience experience how ridiculous their
gibberish really is. Some may think that it's vile, that it's ugly, that it's
hate mongering or fear mongering, but it's really absurdist comedy because
there's no basis in reality, and that's the light it should be seen in. Why not
begin the film with a clown parade?
Documentary audiences need some laughs. In 1932, Tod
Browning directed a horror film called "Freaks" about circus sideshow
performers, including a bearded lady, pinheads, a sword swallower, you know freaks. Maybe
this is homage to Tod Browning.
NH: First, mainstream
media claptrap led by Fox TV reaches and influences millions. They are trying to weave a fictional
narrative and feed it to folks as if it is reality. News once had a veneer of professional
practice, and noble goals. The last thirty years have brought a dramatic shift
in what passes for mainstream journalism.
Corporate capital has bought out and dumbed down what today passes
itself off as broadcast news.
News today leads with pet stories and gore, and fast paced
shrill video and sound bites that are emptied of content and serious analysis. Frankly,
it is a perfect storm for the expansion of the police state. "Cop Killer' is
like some red towel before the bull, two words that they throw out to divert
attention from the real issues that are at the core of the repression that
dominates this culture. They obfuscate,
confuse, frighten, threaten, and tell us War is Peace. These are tactics and
methods of the state and their hired enforcers: the police.
someone that has collaborated with Abu-Jamal since the early 1990's, what do
you think the mainstream media has failed to accurately report on regarding his
journalistic career and struggle for freedom?
NH: In 1981 Mumia was
an award-winning mainstream journalist who was extremely well known in
Philadelphia. Today, if you listen to mainstream reporters they would try and
sell you a lie upon lie upon lie about Mumia. I have been stunned by the
ignorance and duplicity of the writers and reporters who are determined to try
and rewrite history.
20/20 actually distorted Mumia's voice (that I had recorded)
because they wanted it to sound worse. Mumia was not allowed to conduct his own
defense and was removed from the court room during his trial because he was
having a positive impact on the jury. He was compelling and his voice is very
The police spent days in the studios of WUHY (now WHYY) where
Mumia had worked, poring over his audio tapes trying to find something to play
for the jury that would enflame the jurors. They listened to dozens of hours of
tape, but everything that they came across that he produced would have had a
positive effect on the jury. They eventually dug up something he had written in
the Black Panther Party paper when he was sixteen, a quote actually from Mao
Tse-tung: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" This is what the
police had read to the jury to try and convince them that he was just waiting
to kill a cop, to inflame them, to push the jury to vote for death. This jury
had asked for reinstruction on manslaughter. Remember it was July 3, about to
be the 4th of July weekend, when the jury was facing sequestration
over the holiday weekend, and the judge and the DA pushed them to come back
Our film counters the false mainstream narrative with facts.
"He forces us to come to terms with the depths of the crisis of the American
Empire and how do you create some awakening," notes Cornel West in the film.
Noelle has been working with Abu-Jamal since the early 1990's, you have
approached this project as an "outsider' of sorts. What was your impression of
Abu-Jamal before starting the project? Did this impression change following the
completion of the film?
SV: Actually, I worked with Mumia a few years before I
started this project, when I was producing a documentary entitled Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, and
Manifest Destiny and Mumia recorded twenty-five remarkable short essays
that defined the march of Empire over the last five hundred years -- from
Columbus setting foot on Hispaniola to George Bush's murder spree in the Middle
East. So I had some history with Mumia as a contributor to my film and that was
really the genesis of Long Distance
As I approached this project, my impression of Mumia was
this: a brilliant writer, a courageous voice battling the forces of tyranny, a
tireless warrior, a fierce researcher completely dedicated to his craft, and ultimately
a long distance revolutionary. After producing this film for three years, none
of that changed because my impression was spot on and solidified.
But what I did learn that pleasantly surprised me was from a
personal standpoint, because after thirty years in hell the man remains gentle,
he remains loving, and for me, above all, funny. Mumia loves to have fun, loves
to laugh. When we visit, sure, we talk about drone attacks, poverty, torture,
mass incarceration, you name the horror and we talk about it. We even talk a
lot about art and music. Mumia loves music. Most of the time we laugh and talk
about the craziness masquerading as culture in this country.
A3N:Specifically, what do you think is most significant about Abu-Jamal's life and
SV: Clearly, it's been the consistency of his work and the
consistency of his message. Of course he's matured as a writer but his belief
structure has remained remarkably consistent. Professor Todd Steven Burroughs
from Morgan State defines this well in the film, saying: "I was astounded at
the fact that at 15 years old, he was essentially the same writer. The style
was a little more dogmatic as a Panther. You know, because he's using all this
Panther rhetoric, "Do Something, n-word, Even If You Only Spit!" But,
at core, it is the same black leftist analysis that he does at 56. And I was
shocked at that."
I think Todd is right on and I think the film captures this
reality. How many writers, how many activists, how many revolutionaries remain
that consistent? Not many. I know I'm not. But Mumia has managed to stay true
to his spirit. Maybe that has something to do with being right.
NH: Mumia has been consistently focused on exploring and
honoring the humanity of those people in society who often remain unheard. His
dedication to his craft and his commitment to speaking truth to power,
regardless of the oppression and obstacles is truly epic. As a journalist
myself, I could not imagine doing more important work than amplifying
prisoner's voices and listening to their perspectives.
A3N:Along with video footage of Senator Bob Dole's infamous
tirade against Abu-Jamal on the Senate floor in the mid-1990's, you also
spotlight some more recent footage from the "discussion' of a Congressional
Bill condemning the City of St. Denis, a suburb of Paris, France that named a
street after Abu-Jamal. What do you think it was about this street-naming that
so outraged US politicians? What do you think are the primary motives of the
Philadelphia FOP-led campaign against Abu-Jamal? Do you
think it would be accurate to describe this campaign as a modern-day lynch mob?
street-naming publicly outraged US politicians because the US Congress is so
weak and ineffectual when it comes to representing the true needs of their
constituency and actually affecting change that might actually move the society
forward. Things like real health care, real education, and real financial
reform are truly important, but instead they latch onto things that they can
yell and scream about--pretending that they're actually doing something. And
Mumia was the perfect patsy.
They create a demon, stir up the racism that runs through
the US psyche like a main circuit cable, and then start lying. This formula has
worked in the US since the founding fathers were counting their slaves. It's an
old and insidious game, but it works because the sheep buy it every time.
Regarding the FOP and their ongoing campaign, is it
accurate to call it a modern-day lynch mob? Of course it is. Lynching never
stopped in this country. The props just changed: trees and rope were replaced
by mass incarceration. Law professor and author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander,
framed it this way in the film: "There are more African American adults under
correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than
were enslaved in 1850 -- a decade before the Civil War began."
NH: Anyone who
questions the hegemony of the right wing is subject to their ire. They
certainly protest a lot more than it seems appropriate. It makes one wonder,
are these truths and their revelation, so damaging to the state that they have
to use every conceivable tactic of intimidation to try and suppress it?
A3N:Can you each please tell us about one notable interview
featured in the film that viewers should be sure to watch for?
SV: Two interviews stand above all the rest. First is Lydia
Barashango, Mumia's sister who passed away just before we finished the film.
Her memories of growing up with Mumia were warm and wonderful and honest to the
bone. When we interviewed Lydia she was already in the horrific throws of
cancer and yet she represented her family's history with dignity, respect, and
great honor. She was also, like her brother, very funny. Her memories captured
Mumia's life with great love.
The second interview was filmed in 1995 by John Edginton for
his film Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for
Reasonable Doubt? I love this interview for two reasons: one, it captured
Mumia's intellect and rebellious nature, and two, Mumia looks great because the
interview was shot on film and Mumia is extremely confident--it's like this
moment of his life was captured forever. It's very iconic imagery.
NH: Wow that is hard.
Everyone has something to say that is very poignant, interesting and in
many cases, profound. We will be releasing longer versions of many of these
interviews, so folks should tune in as we post them at www.mumia-themovie.com. We
will be editing and posting more from Dick Gregory, Cornel West, and Michelle
Alexander. We also have a DVD of extras that is available now from
(Linn Washington Jr. in Long Distance Revolutionary .)
A3N: How do we get to see your movie? Are there upcoming
film screenings besides the Mill Valley Film Festival? When will the
DVD will be released?
SV: Visit www.mumia-themovie.com to see the updated
screening list. After the Mill Valley
Festival, the film enjoys a great fall festival run. We begin at the
Starz/Denver Film Festival on November 3 and 4, CPH:DOX Copenhagen on November
7, and then the great New York City doc festival DOC NYC on November 10. The
film will then open theatrically in New York and Los Angeles early in 2013
followed by other cities, special engagements, and an extensive college tour.
Video on Demand and Home Video will be released shortly
after the theatrical opening. In fact, the DVD will have some amazing extras
including extended interviews with our historic cast.
SV: Earlier, I mentioned a project entitled Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, and
Manifest Destiny. I decided to shelve the film but not the project. Mumia
and I have decided to write this story as a non-fiction book and we are now
well into the process. In the long shadow of Howard Zinn, we hope this 500-year
story will shed some needed light on the myth and reality of American history.
NH: Just to take a
bit of a risk and be a bit vulnerable, as it has been twenty years that I have
been on this journey, let me share with you a note I wrote to Mumia:
Someone asked me why I connect with you. Well, actually
they said "why do I love' you? I hesitated then answered:
I, with every molecule of my soul, want the world to be
more beautiful, more generous, and more caring. I dream about that. Helping the
world hear your voice is like participating in a wonderful and deeply moving
jazz quartet, or with all the folks that make this possible, even a symphony.
It is that beauty, when your voice joins with ours, and the voices of all
people of color are honored with our listening. And we inspire and move
together to a deeper understanding of the present and our history. Now that, I
believe is transformative. That spirit of possibility will change the world.
I believe you will be free. This work--radio from prison--is
truly your work. You continue, you struggle, no matter what the hurdles.
Amazing. And we are there with you with every breath and every step you take
--Angola 3 News is an official project of the International
Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is http://www.angola3news.com, where we
provide the latest news about the Angola 3. Additionally we are also creating
our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the
Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement
as torture, and more. Our articles and videos have been published by Alternet,
Truthout, Black Commentator, SF Bay View Newspaper, Counterpunch, Monthly
Review, Z Magazine, Indymedia, and many others.
Over 40 years ago in Louisiana, 3 young black men were silenced for trying to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation called Angola. In 1972 and (more...)