A new documentary is creating a stir and generating a much-needed discussion about the way we think about war, violence, police brutality and prison. Long Distance Revolutionary focuses on the life of former death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Supporters of Abu-Jamal have been fighting his conviction for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer for decades. Originally sentenced to death in 1982, Abu-Jamal’s sentence was overturned in federal court and commuted to life without parole.
“I wanted to show people that there is another way by shining a light on Mumia’s story, his work and his writing,” says director Stephen Vittoria. “As a filmmaker and a storyteller, you want to offer an alternative to what people currently see. His work was a direct answer to a country and a society who has made the unthinkable normal.”
The film largely focuses on unknown aspects of Mumia’s life and career as a journalist. He joined the Black Panther Party at the age of 15 when writing for the Black Panther newspaper—a life-altering decision. Long Distance Revolutionary is the story of the meteoritic rise of a young man coming out of racist, economically suppressed Philadelphia. The Vietnam War was raging, the streets of America were burning and police brutality was rampant.
Mumia emerged from all that as if baptized by fire. He became a national reporter for National Public Radio, one of the most sought after journalists and broadcasters in Philadelphia. At the time of his arrest for the killing of officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981, he was an up and coming, vibrant journalist. That same year, Philadelphia magazine named him one of “81 People to Watch.” Some officials contend that Mumia concocted his career as a journalist to turn himself into a celebrity while he was on death row (which couldn’t be further from the truth). Mumia covered politics, music, sports, art, culture and more.
Via telephone interview, Mumia had this to share: “I think because I came into journalism by way of the Black Panther Party—and not J-school or a corporate bourgeois institution—I tried to do news, writing and reporting that had social, political and racial content and context. Everything I wrote supported the concept of Black liberation, of Black freedom, nationally and globally. We wrote about Africa, we wrote about Brazil, Asian and Arab countries. We wrote about global struggles. I learned to write from the perspective of the people, not the rulers. That didn’t leave me when I left the Party.”
An obsessive researcher, director Stephen Vittoria shaped his narrative through those in the film. Featured luminaries like Cornel West, Ruby Dee, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Giancarlo Esposito and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—as well as former Panthers and Mumia’s sister, Lydia Barashango (who passed away from cancer in 2011)—all help tell his incredible story.
Noelle Harahan, director of Prison Radio, digitized cassettes given to her by Mumia’s family to provide access to hundreds of hours of Mumia broadcasts from 1976 to 1981. The tapes were mined for commentary that included everything from interviews with Bob Marley to coverage on the early beginnings of hip-hop, Three Mile Island and his reporting on the MOVE organization. Mumia attempted to show that life isn’t always as it seems when presented in the mainstream media. Narratives illustrated in the film express his deep discontent with war, violence and racism.
“My mission when I write a film, I want to be able to tell a good story first and foremost,” says Vittoria. “Do the films have a strong point of view? Absolutely, but I take a great deal of pride in the amount of research that I do. I am proud to present an alternative narrative view of the facts, of the 30 years of lies that have been told about his life. I truly believe that artists have a responsibility to rewrite history.”
Long Distance Revolutionary premiered successfully in New York City in February and continues to show all over the country. Mumia (now 59 years old) says, “Very few people in prison have voices that go beyond the wall. It’s my job to do the work for them because they have no one. We can have Black faces in high places, but when you look at the lives and conditions of Black people—indeed, the very security of Black people as it involves life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the right to be free from brutality—there are more cases of police brutality happening now than 30 or 40 years ago. Politics has not solved that problem. We can have the illusion of power and essentially be powerless. I really hope that the film at the very least raise questions and at the most open minds.”
Vittoria says he made a conscious decision not to cover the legal case in this film. Mumia Abu Jamal: Case for Reasonable Doubt, a 1996 HBO film, had already done that well. “There was no new information I could share either for or against Mumia’s case. From a creative standpoint, I wanted to make a film about an unknown story, the impact of his life and his writing on the world. The arc of Mumia’s story is so much greater than one night in 1981, and this film attempts to focus on his complete life,” says Vittoria.
“Mumia has become a symbol for all of us,” Angela Davis said in a recent statement of support. “A symbol of struggle, a symbol of hope. Our final goal is to bring Mumia home. He has spent too many years in those dark chambers of death.”
The film will screen next in Toronto on May 2, and in Mumia’s hometown of Philadelphia on May 3. Long Distance Revolutionary is a compelling film that inspires courage and hope for humanity.
For updates on screenings and more information about the film check out: www.mumia-themovie.com.