Did Mumia shoot the cop? Or was he framed by a racist criminal justice system?
These are the central questions that have swirled around Mumia Abu-Jamal in the three decades since he became the U.S.'s most famous Death Row inmate following his arrest and conviction for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. In his new documentary film on Mumia that debuts in New York this Friday, director Stephen Vittoria (The U.S. vs. John Lennon and One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern) looks to break new ground by passing over Mumia's legal battle. Instead, he take the long view of the life and times of a man who became a Black Panther leader in his teens and later galvanized millions of supporters (and legions of detractors) from around the world with his writings and commentaries from Pennsylvania's Death Row.
John Tarleton: Why did you make this film?
Stephen Vittoria: When you wake up in a country that you realize is run by mass murderers, economic rapists and general run-of-the-mill racists and misogynist psychopaths, you start looking for some sanity. And for me the sanity came from a dark, dank hole on death row in the state of Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections and that was Mumia Abu-Jamal. We've made the unthinkable normal in this society and I think Mumia reminds us of that all the time.
JT: When did you first become aware of Mumia?
SV: It was probably the mid '90s when he first started to write and broadcast publicly. The first time I heard his voice, it was a little bit shocking, it was kind of like who is this? And he had this incredible baritone and it was immensely intelligent and very compassionate.
And then you find out that he's writing from death row with no computer, no library, no Internet, just the books that certain folks send to him that he's lucky enough to get. He cranks out some pretty incredible stuff. So I was inspired early on by his writings and his commentaries. And I guess his first book, Live From Death Row, was something that I remember I couldn't wait to get my hands on and read.
JT: Throughout your movie you intersperse supporters of his reading passages from his works. What was the intention behind that?
SV: I needed to bring to life his words. It has not been possible to bring recording devices into prison to interview Mumia since 1996. You have to come with other elements, other techniques to tell the story. I thought people like Ruby Dee and Cornell West and Giancarlo Esposito would work and even folks that aren't so well known that I chose in a general casting session to dramatically bring to life his words. I didn't want to just have talking heads. I wanted people to be able to go on this journey with him through his writing.
JT: You also took time to tell the story of Mumia from his earliest days. The iconic image of him is of the man behind bars with long dreadlocks but you took the time to bring out more of his story.
SV: Mumia is where he is in prison right now primarily because of the power structure, which is incredibly racist in the city of Philadelphia. He was greatly influenced by the repression he felt in Philadelphia, it's one of the reasons he broke out and joined the Black Panthers at a very young age. He was writing for them at the age of 15, 16 years old. He was on a journey early on and I thought it was important to bring to life what he and others like him had to go through. There were a lot of especially young black males in Philadelphia that were under the thumb of the Philadelphia Police Department and the prosecutor's office. To this day Philadelphia remains an incredibly racist city.
JT: You had a previous film about George McGovern's 1972 Presidential campaign. Do you see any connection between that work and this one?
SV: I do. George was a revolutionary within the system but a politician nonetheless. He was very, very different from the rest of his brethren in the Senate and he was probably the most anti-war candidate to ever win a major party nomination. I think it scared the shit out of a lot of people that he got that close to the White House.
Mumia is a classic revolutionary outside the system. I think the similarities are they both intensely wanted to change the system, Mumia from the outside, which is where I think change actually happens from, and McGovern from the inside. There's some similarities, there's a whole lot of differences.
JT: What do you think Mumia's significance is at this moment in US history?
SV: People really need a voice like Mumia or Arundhati Roy or Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn when he was alive that takes on their shoulders the weight of people that are feeling the oppression. Mumia offers an alternative to a narrative that has become very stale. It's a voice we're not getting, by any stretch of the imagination, from the mainstream corporate media.
JT: Describe your political trajectory.
SV: I always grew up very, very radical, very much on the left of American politics. I had my period probably in the late '70s and '80s and into the early '90s where I absolutely was a political atheist and kinda took a Jack Kerouac Zen approach to things.
And I think the administration of George Bush and the post-9/11 madness that went on in this country reignited the pacifist in me, reignited the revolutionary edge of my beliefs. And it started with the film about George McGovern but then quickly materialized ahead into more radical projects and Mumia's story.
JT: Did you have cooperation from Mumia in developing this film?
SV: We corresponded all the time, and I asked him if he wouldn't mind rerecording some of his writings from an audio standpoint, because he can call out on the telephone and we can hook up and get a fairly decent and clean recording. He recorded 15 or 20 short pieces for me that we used. We probably used five or six of them in the film, to kind of punctuate some things.
But as far as any cooperation or collaboration on the narrative or anything like that, no. As a filmmaker, I would never ask that of a subject. I wouldn't want to go there.
JT: What was it like visiting Mumia?
SV: It was pretty intense. They have him caged in a Plexiglas kind of a hermetically sealed room and I'm in a hermetically sealed room. There's sort of an opening on both side of the Plexiglas where our voices could go through.
It was an incredible meeting because in the back of your mind you expect him to be angry and bitter. And he's just, he has transcended that place. He puts his visitors at ease and he is very gregarious and very much himself. You get the sense that he also works incredibly hard in prison as a writer. He has a very specific regimen when he writes. He told me there's certain days he takes off and he'll exercise or read or do other things. And then there's days and hours that he absolutely has to write.
It's very much like a factory existence. I think that's one of the ways he stays sane is the sanity is in the writing. The same sanity I found in his writing I think he ends up giving to himself with his research and his writing.
Our visits were incredibly long – each time for like six, seven hours. No food, no water, we just rapped. And a lot of times it wasn't about political things, it was about goofy things and.. He's never been on a computer so he's very, very interested in what's available out there and how, what you can find online. Because when he went into prison, in 1981, it was typewriters and long nights in the library.
JT: Does the meaning of Mumia's life change if he was in fact guilty of the shooting of Officer Faulkner? Does he have to be innocent of the crime to be a prophetic voice?
SV: That's an excellent question. I don't think he has to be innocent of a crime. Hell, we've had American presidents that are responsible for two or three million deaths. It's like the old saying, kill one person, call it murder, kill a million, call it foreign policy.
I wholeheartedly believe in Mumia's innocence not only from my own personal connection to him but just from what I know of an incredibly skewed case. I believe him to be completely innocent. But does the body of his work and the body of his life change if December the 9th, 1981 actually did happen with him as a guilty party? For me, absolutely not. Maybe for other people it would. It's probably very personal for everybody. But it would not change for me, although I know in my heart and in my mind that he's innocent.
JT: You chose not to make this movie about the case. You wanted to go somewhere else?
SV: Everything that's ever been done about Mumia, whether it's been a film, a video, a book, an article, has always been about the case. So as a filmmaker, I wasn't interested in mining twenty-five or thirty years of existing material just to regurgitate it back and come up with my own spin on it.
But from an aesthetic standpoint and from a storytelling standpoint there's a narrative to be told about Mumia's life as a journalist and a writer that's an incredible story. You have a young man coming up out of a very, very tough existence, growing up in the projects of Philadelphia and educated to the point where he's becoming a major reporter at the age of 28 for National Public Radio, for “All Things Considered”, and that career is snuffed out. And then lo and behold, he continues the career under draconian and harsh conditions from prison.
JT: Given how controversial how Mumia has been, was it difficult to get support for this project and also to find distributors?
SV: It was not hard whatsoever. My production company, Street Legal Cinema, financed the film in its entirety so I didn't have any suits tied around my neck telling me what to do and what not to do, which is how I like to make films. That's the wonderful thing about documentaries is that the technology has democratized the process. So in the digital world people can tell stories that just 10 or 15 years ago would have been too expensive to tell and the gatekeepers at the door would never let these stories get out. My distributor, First Run Features, has a long history of distributing fiercely independent films, and they are strong supporters.
JT: What do you think the future holds for Mumia? There have been comments from Mumia's opponents saying they hoped he would rot in oblivion in the Pennsylvania prisons now that his sentence has been commuted from death to life without parole.
SV: They even went to the extent of saying that they would that someone in prison did the job that they were never able to do. That kind of sounds like a threat to me, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears as far as the authorities in Pennsylvania went.
Mumia is very, very well respected in prison by the other prisoners. They realize what he's done for them as a jailhouse lawyer and helping people fight the system and get retrials and submit briefs and change things.
I don't know what the future holds for Mumia. He's 58 right now and the powers that be are hell bent on keeping that man in prison. But there are a lot of people on the outside that continue to fight for Mumia's freedom, and I think that if they can catch a break and they can catch some mercy they might find some freedom.
I know Mumia will, to his dying breath, continue to fight for others, he will continue to write, he will continue to broadcast from prison until he can't do it anymore. I hope and pray that he sees the light of day at some point.
“Long Distance Revolutionary: a Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal” (First Run Features, 2012) debuts at Cinema Village Friday February 1.